This post has been updated.
By Jackson Richman
There is good and bad of any kind of institution, like education. There are good and bad public schools, good and bad private schools, good and bad religious schools, and good and bad charter schools. The issue of school choice is usually debated in terms of how it benefits low-income students inside the classroom.
Very little from the debate consists of how a good school, like Gary Comer College Prep, a charter school in the Southside Chicago neighborhood of Grand Crossing, can impact students not just inside, but outside, its nurturing walls.
Upon entering the sleek and modern school, which opened in 2008, inspirational quotations, with college insignias in the background, are scattered on the wall above the staircase entrance and around.
An example of a featured quotation is from American psychologist Carl Rogers: The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change [bold emphasis mine].
With most of their low-income 770 student-population as soon-to-be first-generational college students, the school emphasizes why it is important to continue one’s education after graduating high school. The school has a 100 percent graduation rate and has 250 seats available for its freshmen class, which is filled on a first-come, first-serve basis, followed by an academic assessment to determine which students get placed in regular and honors courses.
‘Let’s go ahead and start with the end in mind’
“We try to educate freshmen early [and] say, ‘Hey, work really hard in the classroom and try to get academic scholarships,'” so that they do not take out student loans, a school administrator, who requested anonymity, told me on my tour of Gary Comer. The school is part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, and its namesake was the founder of the clothing retailer Lands’ End in addition to being a philanthropist who grew up in Grand Crossing. (For our purposes, the administrator will be named “Vontale,” which is not his real name.)
Vontale, who was the first in his family to attend college, mentioned that regarding the financial situations of his students, “This is the reality of what we’re dealing with, but it don’t have to end that way.”
He continued, “Because by the end of your four years…you, too, can go to college with scholarships, with a bunch of grants.”
With most of the freshmen entering the ninth grade at a fifth-grade or sixth-grade reading level, a week during the summer is dedicated to orienting them to the school, its discipline, and its culture. “They get familiar with their teachers and their schedules even before school starts,” Vontale said. “Make them feel part of this new experience even before upper classmen ever step foot into the building.”
Vontale accompanied me to the outside of a classroom, where an Advanced Placement psychology class was taking what apparently was an exam, with a motivational wall consisting of green cards of alumni matching with pennants of colleges and universities like Harvard, MIT, and Marquette.
“That’s the powerful thing about our school,” Vontale said. “Not only do we prepare them to do well here, we track and follow them all the way through college.” Gary Comer fulfills this through a college team of some of their teachers, who visit their alumni, like at Stanford or schools on the east coast, annually.
“We want [our current students] to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and start with the end in mind,'” Vontale said. “When you walk into this room and you’re in classes here…let’s just remind ourselves and envision yourself being on that wall.”
He later remarked, “Our kids are not perfect, but by and large, you see our kids engaged, they’re reading. You see our teachers involved, they care. They have structures.”
Structure Outside the Classroom
Like any school, Gary Comer has extracurricular activities, such as a back-to-back championship football team, which enables the students to have fun outside the classroom.
Vontale said it is a way to tell the students, “You can have fun, too, but at the same time, we want you to be a student athlete.”
More importantly, these activities keep the students out of trouble in an area infamous for non-stop violent crimes.
“I would definitely say it’s a big deterrent from the gangs, guns, and violence of the South Side of Chicago,” Vontale said. “We’d be fooling ourselves to say that just because we have this school here, it all disappears.”
Moreover, Gary Comer is meant to be a shelter from the danger. Students or other neighbors being robbed at gunpoint, in addition to other crimes, can be traumatic for the school’s population. “We try to make our environment a real refuge for our students,” Vontale said. “Not just for academics, but for social and emotional learning, just for comfort for people who care and support them in their daily lives.”
Sitting in his small office, Vontale told me about being a mentor to the students outside of Gary Comer, and helping freshmen, especially those with high aspirations.
He recalled meeting a couple years ago with a freshman, raised in a single home with a couple younger siblings whose father was killed when he was two years old.
This student wanted to be a professional basketball player. “I cringe anytime a kid says that now because I just know the odds are just not going to happen.” But when Vontale asked the kid why he wants to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA), the kid mentioned former Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose’s path, from growing up in nearby Englewood. The kid said, “He made it out, I want to be like him.”
Initiating a strategy he has used before, Vontale then called one of his close friends, who then worked for the Oklahoma City Thunder, when superstar Kevin Durant was on the team, to tell him about a student in his office who wants to be an NBA player.
Instead of being told what it takes to be in the NBA, the kid heard from Durant that there is something more important than the court: the classroom.
Until then, Durant had never been on these kind of calls Vontale uses to motivate certain students.
Vontale recalled Durant asking the freshman, “Hey, how’s school?”
Durant continued, “The reason why I’m in the NBA is because I’m really tall…Have you heard of the ACT?”
The freshman responded, “Yeah.”
Durant replied, “You know you got to take the ACT?”
Vontale concluded that the student later bragged to his peers, who then went to Vontale himself, jealous this freshman talked to one of the NBA’s best.
“He talked with him for a little bit,” Vontale recalled telling the envious students. “But he didn’t talk about basketball.”
Instead, “He talked about education, talked about school,” Vontale said.
Unlike Rose, however, this NBA dream never materialized.
Two months later, sitting in the funeral scene of Spike Lee’s “Chirac” movie, Vontale got a phone call that what was part of a script would become reality elsewhere: That particular student got shot and killed in the area where his father faced that same fate.
The freshman was 15 years old.
“Now, it went from me having a conversation to help this kid, to me now meeting with his mom, planning a funeral,” Vontale said. “And I just never will forget the next day, me, coming up to the school, seeing about 15 young men who knew him, crying, and they said, ‘We want to talk with you,’ and I said, ‘Guys, I know he meant a lot to you. He meant a lot to me as well, he meant a lot to us as well, but what can we do to extend his legacy, his honor?'”
He told the students, “One of the things we can do is work really hard…and we can stay away from such violence.”
He added, “We have to really, really, think about our choices…people we are around, all of those type of things.”
With two full school buses, Vontale and the Gary Comer community attended the funeral, where the now-former student’s mom, in disbelief, could not even look at her son’s casket.
“It put me in a very peculiar place,” Vontale said. “And I said, ‘Wow, I thought I was just supposed to sit at my desk, being an administrator.”
He added, “This is part of an administration in a charter school on the South Side: [It is] that you also have to be a counselor. You have to be a therapist. You have to be a mentor on Saturdays. And you have to be a father.”
He concluded, “These are the hats that I wear that I wish the world would know that this is what we’re going through as administrators, trying to help our kids get to college.”
‘Scholarship, Discipline, and Honor’
The school’s motto is “Scholarship, Discipline, and Honor.” Instead of focusing on ways to measure proficiency and that there are big donors behind charter schools like Gary Comer, the school choice debate should also be about the impact on student lives both inside and outside the classroom.
For some school choice opponents, like Illinois Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy, schools like Gary Comer “[violate] the notion of great public education in America.”
However, a senior has another take on schools like hers. “I fell like if I went to another high school in the city, I probably wouldn’t have a legacy,” she told me. “I probably would be overshadowed. Probably wouldn’t have a lot of appreciation as far as where I come from, what I do.”
She added, “I just appreciate everything Gary Comer has prepared me to do and will continuously prepare me to do throughout my four years in college because they follow you through this difficult and long process that a lot of people in the African-American community don’t experience.”
She concluded, “Regardless of everything that’s going on right now and all the negativity and all the violence, I feel like me and my community, or me and my friends, and me and my classmates, we are going to make it out of this struggle and we’re going to be something great. And basically just telling America…they should come into these communities to see what we’re doing because our impact once we graduate college is going to be humongous. It’s going to be something never seen before.”
“It’s almost like a positive warning,” she added. “Just be prepared for what Chicago students, and what Noble students, and what Gary Comer students [will] bring to the world in the next 10 years or so.”
Schools like Gary Comer demonstrate that school choice does not just give a ticket to a better education. It is valid to say that it can lead to a better life for its students beyond the school walls.