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Roots and Wings: A Second-Generation St. Athanasius Family Shines

by Partnership Staff
3 minute read

When Catherine Soto was a student at Saint Athanasius in the Bronx, she could peer out of her classroom window across Southern Boulevard and watch her grandmother cook dinner. The school was a second home, a place that propelled her to Cornell University and to a position as an executive at a healthcare non-profit.

She and her husband set down roots further north in the Bronx—but when it came time to choose an elementary school for her older son, she wanted him to have the same mix of community and possibility she had growing up. Thus they chose St. Athanasius for their children too. Now her oldest, Aaron, is headed to the Dwight School in Manhattan after he graduates from St. Athanasius this spring. 

There was a time in the history of working-class Catholic schools when the academic excellence children received in them often propelled graduates out of the neighborhoods where they were raised, to what many saw as a “better life,” often in the suburbs. The Sotos’ trajectories out of—and back to—St. Athanasius suggest that story might be due for a 21st Century update. 

Seen and Known at St. Athanasius

Of Dominican-American heritage, Catherine explains, “I love St. Athanasius because my children are proud of their culture. They have grown up in it.” 

The school also has the academic standards she expects for Aaron and his younger brother, second grader Nolan. Those standards are upheld by people who know her two children well and reinforce the values that mean so much to her—values of integrity, humility, hard work, service, and kindness.  

Aaron, his mother says, “is the kind of kid who embodies the core values of Saint Athanasius.” He is creative, filling sketchbooks with animated characters, including a detailed depiction of imaginary chess pieces in conflict. The teachers and school leadership perceived his talents and character and offered him opportunities to shine from time to time, like reading at school Masses. He is “a leader in his little class,” she says with pride. 

Supported in the High School Search

With years of consistent support from the educators at St. Athanasius, Catherine knew where to turn when it was time to start looking at high schools. The process originally seemed intimidating. But principal Jessica Aybar and then-dean Fiona Palladino suggested Aaron apply to the Oliver Scholars, a program that helps students from underserved New York communities flourish in high-performing independent schools and beyond. 

Both Oliver Scholars and Chris Matesic, director of high school placement for Partnership Schools, knew that Aaron would be a good candidate for a wide range of institutions, and both encouraged Aaron to cast his net wide.

With their support, Aaron earned admission to a number of independent boarding and day schools, including Dwight, which has awarded him a significant scholarship. The institution has campuses in London, Seoul, Shanghai, Dubai and Hanoi, as well as Central Park West in Manhattan, which Aaron will attend. Tuition this year at its New York campus is just over $60,000. 

“The school has an international base,” Catherine says. “They really value kids from different backgrounds.” The flag of the Dominican Republic, flying with others at the school, as well as the staff and parents’ welcome has assured her; “It all said that there is acceptance here,” says Catherine.

“You don’t have to be afraid to ask for support. People don’t know what you don’t know,”

Being connected to a Partnership School made the process of finding Dwight and securing a scholarship easier, says Catherine. She advises parents in her situation to explore their options and not to be intimidated. “You don’t have to be afraid to ask for support. People don’t know what you don’t know,” she says, noting it is vital to find a school that can align “with the goals you have for your child.”

Comfortable Community, Profound Possibility 

While the geographic distance from Saint Athanasius to the Dwight School may be only seven miles and a few subway stops, there is a perceived cultural chasm between the Bronx and Central Park West. But Catherine says she is confident that her son can bridge that gap. He will have an example in his mother, who navigated the distance between the Bronx and Cornell, a process she recalls as a challenging one.

Aaron’s mother went from watching her grandmother from her classroom window in the Bronx to Cornell, thanks to a tight and supportive community at Saint Athanasius, a place close to home yet able to propel students far beyond. To the supporters who have made it possible for St. Athanasius to continue providing her children and others the same mix of community and opportunity, Catherine has one message: “Thank you.