Pierce the Ceiling of Our Imagination

Catalyst 2My previous post posed a sizable, expansive question: how could we radically rethink our educational system to better serve all students, especially our most vulnerable students who reside in poverty?  Gordon Hannon and Ed Siderewicz were presented with an opportunity to downsize that question to radically rethink how you deliver on our educational promise in a single public school, which is more doable and controllable than changing an entire system and at the same time provides the necessary push to consider what is possible within that system.

Gordon and Ed are pioneers in the NativtyMiguel Coalition. Both founded the San Miguel School of Chicago – Back of the Yards Campus in 1995 and then the San Miguel of Chicago – Gary Comer Campus in 2001.  The Lasallian charism that animated Gordon and Ed, who were both DeLaSalle Christian Brothers when the Back of the Yards campus was founded, was core to the founding of both campuses. In 2005, they were invited by the Chicago Public Schools to found a charter school based on the educational design of the San Miguel Schools. In 2006, they opened the Catalyst School – Howland Campus and in 2007, they opened Catalyst School – Circle Rock Campus.

Enter the Sisters of St. Casimir, who operated Maria High School as a Catholic, all-girls schools for more than 100 years.  In the 1960’s and 70’s, Maria High School educated 1,400 students in grades 9-12.  By 2011, enrollment had dropped to 207 students.  Due to declining enrollment and increasing financial challenges, the Sisters of St. Casimir decided to cease operation of Maria High School in June 2013.  The Sisters, who were very familiar with Lasallian education and had heard about the Catalyst Schools, invited Catalyst to consider opening a new school on the Maria High School Campus.  The Sisters saw it as an opportunity for their tradition of education to the economically-poor to continue at Maria High School with a school culture and set of core values that aligned with the Sisters’ identity. Catalyst applied for a third charter through Chicago Public Schools in 2011 and opened Catalyst School – Maria Campus in 2012.  When it reaches its full complement of grades this Fall, the Maria Campus will be educating 1,100 students in Gr. K-12.

Ed will say that the Catalyst Schools are not the manifestation of the San Miguel School of Chicago as a charter school; rather a new entity has been birthed inspired by the spiritual and educational principles that have founded Lasallian schools for the last 335 years, including the San Miguel School of Chicago. The Lasallian motto today is “Teaching minds and touching hearts.” These principles are a part of every aspect of Catalyst Schools: they establish the mission of Catalyst schools, instill the core values of each school community, and develop the character of its students just as they always have in Lasallian education.  Furthermore, these principles form the hearts and minds of its teachers and in doing so drive school culture and inform how Catalyst teachers instruct in the classroom.

At the same time, the Catalyst Schools are public schools, and Gordon and Ed and the entire Catalyst team ensure that the schools abide by and are accountable to the “law of the land” when it comes to governance; hiring, training and firing faculty and staff; use of funds and facilities; tracking and reporting data; teaching a standards-based curriculum; and providing the least restrictive education for students with special needs.  As a network of public schools, Catalyst knows that it needs to serve the public good with an excellent education and that they are accountable to that promise.  This Fall, Catalyst made the decision to close the Howland Campus at the end of this year since the results of the that school did not meet the expected benchmarks of the Chicago Public Schools.

It is important to understand the mindset from which Gordon as Chief Executive Officer and Ed as Vice President for Mission and External Relations operate the Catalyst Schools.  Ed shared an interesting picture graph representing the percentage of students who will be able to afford the tuition of a Catholic education in 2022, about 1 in every 10 students, which is already close to the reality today.  At this trend, Catholic education will be inaccessible to 90% of students in just over 5 years.  Driven by integrity, authenticity, and fidelity to Lasallian education and Lasallian mission to the economically poor, the Catalyst Schools “pierce the ceiling of our imagination” to radically rethink how a tradition of faith-based schools can inspire a single public school or network of public schools to effectively serve and educate the public.

Gordon and Ed will admit that there are people on both sides who are uncomfortable with Catalyst Schools, religious who believe you can not be authentic to Lasallian education if you are not delivering an explicitly Christian education in the classrooms and secular who believe that the school is blurring and crossing the lines of the separation of church and state.  And, quite frankly, that is a good sign.  If we are to radically rethink what an educational system looks like, one that justly serves the public good in a way that all students deserve, then we have to acknowledge that this system may bend and challenge how we have always thought of both faith-based education and public education.  A re-envisioned educational system may be comprised of various school models and designs, and as long as each school is providing an excellent education that each student deserves and is abiding to the law of the land, we will need to come to terms with the tension that may exist between educators who see things differently.  For Gordon and Ed, they have come to accept this tension as healthy if we are able to trust in the mission, work, and contribution of each school community.

Catalyst 1One final note, the Sisters of Casimir are still connected to the Maria Campus, literally, opening the Maria Kaupas Center as “a Catholic space where spirituality, community and leadership merge creating opportunities for the people of all faiths to grow and develop as effective agents of God’s love.”  The Center, which is accessible from the second floor hallway of the school, is operated separately from the school, governed by a separate board, and funded through private gifts and grants.  200 students are registered for the Center and each day a range of students gather for after-school programming that includes spiritual, social, academic and enrichment opportunities. Whereas the Catalyst School – Maria Campus is faith-inspired, the Maria Kaupas Center delivers an explicitly faith-based environment.  While what you are able to say and teach may be different as a student or teacher enters the threshold of the Center, the spirit of community and the love that is shown for each person in that community is the same no matter where you may stand in the hallway.

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