WILMINGTON – When the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales opened Nativity Prep in 2003, one of the sixth-grade students was a boy who not too long before that had moved from Mexico to Delaware. Rogelio Lopez was still learning English and had spent fifth grade at Marbrook Elementary School near Prices Corner when his mother made a decision that changed his life.
“I was doing this program at the LACC (Latin American Community Center),” Lopez recalled recently. “This priest, it turned out to be Brother Ed, now Father Ed Ogden, he came to talk to us about this school. I didn’t think much of it, but my mom apparently liked it.”
She signed him up, “and that was it,” Lopez, who is approaching his 23rd birthday, said with a laugh.
Lopez and his family had come to the United States to join his father, who had worked in this country for several years. Young Rogelio had made friends at Marbrook and wasn’t sure he wanted to change schools after just a year. He is glad he did.
Perhaps Father Ogden didn’t know it, but his successful pitch is still bearing fruit. From that first day in the fall of 2003, Lopez became a member of Nativity’s first graduating class in 2006, and this year he returned as one of its volunteer teachers.
Lopez said his education at Nativity Preparatory School of Wilmington, a tuition-free Catholic middle school for boys that’s guided by the example of St. Francis de Sales, has inspired in him a desire to pass that same opportunity to others.
Lopez’s ties with Nativity were never totally disconnected. As a high school student at Tatnall School, he fulfilled his community service requirements by volunteering at Nativity. Then last year, when he was a senior at Haverford College working toward a degree in classical studies and society, Nativity president David Kubacki contacted him about returning as a teacher. Kubacki was the graduate support director when Lopez was a student, so they have known each other for many years.
“He was pushing me to come here, and I was very into it. My first impression is I could be a role model to them, even my presence. You know, this guy, he went through it, he was able to achieve whatever he did. But I think it’s become more than that,” Lopez said.
“It’s sort of crazy that I get to have some sort of influence on their lives, even though they probably don’t realize it right now.”
Lopez and the other two resident teachers work at Nativity as part of the AmeriCorps program. They receive a small stipend, and credit that Lopez will use toward his student loans. Even though he is back in Wilmington and close to his family, he lives with the other teachers.
The philosophy at Nativity hasn’t changed since those first days, Lopez said. “We’re still taking young men and making them be gentlemen.”
He said the school has changed for the better since 2003. At that point, everything was new for the teachers and staff as well as the students. The building on Linden Street had been a fitness center, and what is a conference room today housed a pool 12 years ago. There have been improvements to the curriculum as well as the physical plant.
The days remain long, there are still weekend and summer obligations, and parents are required to help out at the school. But Lopez said the students have a great sense of humor and are motivated.
“They’re willing to put in the work and not even really see the results but know they will,” he said.
Lopez said he would like to teach a second year at Nativity and perhaps study for his master’s degree.
“A lot was given to me when I went here so if I could just give part of that back then I’ve done a good job,” he said.
Recruiting is not part of his job description, but he recommends other young boys give it a shot the way he did back in 2003. Nativity Prep has a lot to offer.
“Not only do you get a good education, but it’s the whole experience — the friends you make, the people that you meet, the people that help you. It just really builds up to who you’re going to be later. And I don’t see any other place being exactly like it.”