Going Back to the Back of the Yards

GuadalupeThe first time I visited the San Miguel School of Chicago was over 14 years ago in March 2001.  I was accompanying a group of students from Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, MN on a Service Immersion Trip.  We toured the San Miguel School to better understand the context of this educational mission in the Back of the Yards Neighborhood and our high school students tutored the middle school students at the school.  When I visited the San Miguel Chicago a couple of weeks ago, it was like coming home, a feeling which is based on a mere 15 or so visits over the last 14 years.  I can only imagine how much like home it must feel to the students and teachers who spend years together learning, loving, laughing and growing as a school community.

Perhaps it is the large mural of San Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe in the stairwell that welcomes you as you arrive to school.  In the short form, for those of you who do not the story, San Juan Diego was a young Indian with no riches or influence to whom Mary appeared on the top of Tepeyac hill outside of Mexico City and asked to build a church there.  When at first he was dismissed by the Bishop and church authorities, Mary again appeared to him and asked that he gather flowers that were unseasonably growing there in rocky soil where only cactus and scrub normally grew.  He obeyed and placed the flowers in his cloak to bring to the Bishop.  Upon meeting with the Bishop, the flowers fell to the floor and an image of Mary appeared on his cloak as a sign that Juan Diego was on a mission and should be heard.  Seeing it this time, the mural reminded me of the quote from the recent movie The Imitation Game: “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” For students in the Back of the Yards neighborhood who are too often dismissed and denied opportunity, the mural that greets them each morning and the spirit of the learning environment that it represents, is a reminder that they do have gifts and influence to share and that they are on a mission and should be heard.

As I stated in last week’s post, the school was founded by Ed Siderewicz and Gordon Hannon who were both DeLaSalle Christian Brothers at the time.  In its first year, the school was located in the first floor of the former parish convent which now houses a Lasallian community of Brothers and Lasallian Volunteers who work at the school and other places in the neighborhood.  Gordon and Ed and a couple of volunteers were the teachers and administrators, and students had meals and assembly in the dining room and classes in the living room.

A couple of years later, the San Miguel School of Chicago moved across the street to the top floor of the former St. Michael’s Catholic School where it remains today. The top floor has never been a physically expansive space.  The school has always had to creatively and intentionally use the six-and-a-half classrooms at their disposal and its use of space highlights the priorities of the San Miguel School community to educate “academically at-risk students who are behind in core subjects of reading, math and literacy.”  The San Miguel School of Chicago is a 6th-8th grade school with 30 students at each grade level.  Each classroom has three teachers: a veteran teacher, a novice teacher, and a full-time volunteer who serves as an instructional aid in the classroom.  One room is shared by graduate support and family support services, which offer counseling and opportunities to engage parents and family in health, wellness and other learning.  The school leaders, counselors, graduate support and family support staff also share two private office spaces on an as-needed basis.  The other rooms are utilized for remediation and enrichment to allow targeted intervention as needed throughout the day.  “Students are in and out of small groups so much that there is no stigma of being smart or needing help, there is only a mindset of growth to become better,” said Tad Smith who has worked at the school for 13 years and is now Principal.

This strong culture of learning is continuously refined by an experienced principal and assistant principal, a core team of skilled teachers, and an inspired, compassionate educational community.  The openness to grow that is encouraged of each student is also encouraged of the faculty, staff and leaders, and this has proven to be a significant asset to the history of the San Miguel School of Chicago – Back of the Yards campus over the last 20 years.

Like all schools in the NativityMiguel Coalition, the San Miguel School of Chicago is faced with the demands and uncertainty of a significant question: How do we, as an independently governed and privately funded school, secure and utilize the necessary resources and employ the necessary staffing models to make good on our promise of an exceptional, non-tuition driven education for those who reside in poverty?

In my February 5 blog Shifting the Mindset from Surviving to Thriving, I outlined six (6) strategies to address that question and increase the likelihood that a school is operable each year.  While the San Miguel School of Chicago is implementing similar strategies to reach a position of greater strength and stability, their core response to the question above begins with a tight, clear focus on mission.  Our mission does not exist because we have assembled resources, secured a school facility, or hired a team of leaders, faculty and staff; our mission exists in the reality of our students and families, and our mission would exist tomorrow even if our schools closed their doors today.

In this way, even after 20 years, the founding story of the San Miguel School of Chicago remains very meaningful today.   Our presence, relevance, and impact in our mission depends on how well we utilize the resources, facilities, and personnel that are accessible to us in any given year.  Across our Coalition, there is a significant range of resources, facilities, and personnel available to our schools, and yet, our compelling, shared pursuit is excellence in our educational mission with exactly, precisely that of which we have been given.  Even as our schools develop strategic plans to get better at what we do, plans that may require more resources, improved facilities or additional personnel, our school leaders well understands that operating within your means this year as a mindset for mission and for fiscal responsibility increases the likelihood that you will be present, relevant and more impactful the next.

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