The halls at St. Charles Borromeo School in Harlem are lined with photos from graduates of years past, included, among thousands, the 13-year-old visage of Najé George. But you’ll also see her walking in those hallways in 2024, on her way to teach first grade or checking in on her own children, fifth grader Noah and pre-K student Nyla.
A photo of her oldest daughter, Nevaeh, hangs on the wall too; she graduated in 2022 and is a junior at Notre Dame School of Manhattan. Her youngest child, Niko, isn’t old enough to attend St. Charles but no doubt will when the time comes. Ms. George’s mother still lives across the street in the apartment Ms. George was raised in at the Drew Hamilton houses.
St. Charles is truly a family affair for Ms. George.
She joined the school’s faculty two years ago, in part because the school’s exploding enrollment called for a second class of first grade to be added. The school has more than doubled in size since it joined the Partnership in 2019. St. Charles’ growth can be attributed to many causes: parents sought new options in the wake of COVID learning disruptions, scholarship support made it more affordable, and principal Natalia Rodrigo and her team have done energetic outreach. Yet parents often cite the powerful sense of community at the school as a draw.
At a time when the nation is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, Naje George has chosen to provide her students at St. Charles the same strong sense of community she received there. As she explains, she began her teaching career at a school for special needs students downtown. But when she interviewed for the position at St. Charles, she thought, “This is it—I’m here—I’m home.”
That sense of belonging she experienced and now provides to her students at St. Charles has multiple layers. It is anchored in spirituality. Ms. George has been part of the St. Charles church choir and the larger parish community ever since she was baptized as an infant. Before she was born, her mother roamed the neighborhood seeking out a church, both Protestant and Catholic, before deciding to make her family’s spiritual home at St. Charles Borromeo, a beacon for Black Catholics located in the most famous of African American neighborhoods.
Ms. George reinforces that spiritual community in her classroom. Every week her first-graders go to Mass together. Ms. Nage wears a cross, often commented upon by her students, which include Catholics and non-Catholics.
That sense of belonging she inherited and now teaches is also bound up in the pride and power of St. Charles as a Harlem institution. She explains that her students “can see a teacher who looks like them.” They learn, she says, “You can go anywhere in the world and you can still go home.”
The community is also a powerful support to her now, as a teacher dedicated to her craft. Several of her colleagues—including middle school teacher Brian Tillery and Principal Natalia Rodrigo—were her teachers as well, and they serve as models she strives to emulate, even as this busy teacher and mom also pursues a graduate degree at Teachers College–Columbia.
“When I’m struggling as a teacher, I think, what would Ms. Selby do?” Janice Selby, Ms. George’s own fourth-grade teacher, overlapped with her as a colleague until she retired in 2022 after 42 years of service.
In her classroom, as Ms. George prepares a math lesson as well as a class on ancient Egypt, she reflects that her teachers “Gave me love, a way to know who I am.” Now, she gives that to her students in the same hallways.
“We want all the children to feel loved and cared for. She brings what she received,” Ms. Rodrigo says about her first-grade teacher.
The power of long-serving Catholic schools is, as we say often at the Partnership, that they are “more than classrooms; they are a community.” Those communities are established and maintained by a powerful force: the commitment of educators and parents like Ms. George. They are a particular blessing in a time when we need strong communities as much as ever.