Somedays, Samantha Torres dreams about becoming a video game designer. Other days, she wants to open up her own bakery or maybe even design her own clothing brand.

No matter what the seventh-grader decides, Samantha’s parents, Mireya and Juan, are eager to see her dreams come true.

And for them, that starts with making sure she gets a sound education — despite the family’s economic status.

Samantha is one of about 80 low-income middle school students who attend Sacred Heart Nativity School in the heart of San Jose’s Washington-Guadalupe neighborhood. Students who attend the private Catholic school come from families earning an average annual income of $30,000, and when they enter in the sixth grade, many are at least 1-2 grade levels behind in English and math. More than 90% of the students are Latinos, with most of them coming from immigrant families living within the surrounding neighborhood.

The school, which has been open for more than two decades, has long relied on a rigorous academic program that includes long school days and Saturday classes to ensure that students head off to high school on track academically with the skills and foundation to lead a successful life, both academically and socially. Once they graduate from the middle school and go on to a nearby high school, Sacred Heart Nativity staff stay in touch with the students and help them throughout their academic journey through college or trade schools.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, the unique issues that the students of Sacred Heart Nativity were facing outside of the classroom became even more apparent and school officials realized that they had to take more action.

Living in a one-bedroom apartment with her father, mother and sister, Samantha struggled to concentrate. For a while, her Wi-Fi didn’t work properly and then her headphones broke. Feeling anxious and a bit lost, she often kept her camera off and failed to turn in her homework. Soon, the typically extroverted and hard-working student had failing grades.

As Samantha explained it, “you’re on the computer, so you’re always one click away from a whole different thing other than school, so that was hard.”

That’s when the school’s new support services team came into play.

They arranged one-on-one Zoom meetings to walk Samantha through her missing assignments. They coached her parents on how to help her manage her time and provide necessary interventions when she failed to complete assignments. And, they checked in regularly to see how she and the family were faring during the difficult times.

Slowly, Samantha’s teachers and counselor began to see some improvement. And when she eventually returned to in-person classes, she went from failing most of her classes to becoming one of the highest achieving students in the class.

Although the students at Sacred Heart Nativity School are now all back on campus and students like Samantha once again seem to be thriving, administrators know the issues they saw rise to the surface during the pandemic have not suddenly disappeared.

Now, despite returning back to in-person classes, the school, which relies almost entirely on donations, is hoping to raise $10,000 through the Wish Book campaign to bolster its Support Services program and provide its families with even more offerings, including cultivating alumni groups, adding a dedicated staff member to help students with special needs and creating an after school support center for students and families.

Full story at Mercury News.