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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Chicago Mag: Can $86 Million Save a Neighborhood? with the elementary school angle

Comer with his Revere Elementary friends in 2000
If only our schools had some type of generous benefactor as it appears that Paul Revere Elementary had. An alum came in and immediately started cutting checks especially since he definitely made good after not only leaving this school, but the neighborhood around the school where he grew up.
On a mild September day in 1999, Gary Comer drove from his Gold Coast apartment to a neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side. Known as Pocket Town, it’s a small triangular “pocket” of Greater Grand Crossing bordered by Oakwood Cemetery to the north, the Norfolk Southern tracks to the west, and the Metra tracks to the east.

Like many parts of the South Side, Pocket Town had become overrun with drug dealers and gang violence in the 1970s. Block after block was blighted. The local school was failing. Fifteen percent of residents lived below the poverty line, and unemployment topped 25 percent.

Comer, a diminutive 70-year-old in khakis and a crewneck sweater, got out of his car and walked into the two-story red brick Paul Revere Elementary School. “This little guy, who barely reached my shoulder, came up to me and tapped me,” recalls Shelby Taylor, the principal at the time, a tall man with a deep voice. “He asked to take a tour of the school.”

Days later, Comer wrote a check for $68,000 to fix an electrical problem in the aging building that prevented computers from being used in the computer lab. A grateful Taylor asked Comer what he could do for him in return. Comer responded, “Well, Shelby, I would like a good soul food lunch.” Over greens, grits, and cornbread, Comer told him: “I will use all of my resources to help turn Revere around.”

Dumbstruck, Taylor learned that the unassuming senior citizen was the billionaire founder of the mail-order clothing empire Lands’ End. Comer had graduated from Revere more than half a century before. And it turned out that helping the school was only the beginning. Comer soon resolved to do no less than transform the lives of the families and young people of Pocket Town.
Aside from money this is what Comer did for Revere:
Early on, Comer and his staff at the foundation debated whether to prop up Revere or design a new charter school from scratch. They chose the former. “We would’ve had to close down the school for a year in order to turn it into a charter, and that’s where the conversation always stopped,” explains Schleicher. “What would those kids have done [in the meantime]?”

A research junkie, Comer spent countless hours studying Revere. He learned that its students’ reading, math, and writing scores were chronically so low that Revere had been on Chicago Public Schools’ academic probation list for years. Absenteeism was rampant. Taylor, who had started on the job five months before Comer came knocking, was the school’s fourth principal in 18 months. “Gary knew more about my school than I did,” says Taylor.

For every problem Comer encountered, he would propose a solution. To stop students from wearing gang colors, for example, he “bought every single kid—nearly 700 of them—three tops, two bottoms, and a sweater,” says Taylor.

Comer helped set up a science club and sent daily e-mails to its members. He put maps and globes in every classroom. He bought laptops for students. And when President Clinton launched a federal initiative to bring new technology to poor urban communities, Comer personally handled Revere’s bid for funds. “I spent that Christmas with Gary, in my office, filling out the applications,” says Taylor. (Revere wound up receiving $368,000, which paid for a total of 138 computers in its 23 classrooms.)

Taylor says Comer’s commitment to Revere eventually reached upward of $1 million annually—twice as much as the school was receiving from federal and state aid combined. With that money, the school did everything from remodel its auditorium to bring in experts to train teachers.

When students graduated from Revere, they headed to South Shore High School, a couple of miles away, which had an abysmal graduation rate of 50 percent. Comer wanted Pocket Town’s kids to have a strong high school right in the neighborhood. He decided that building a charter school—publicly funded but privately run—was the way to go.
That charter school is Gary Comer College Prep located at the corner of 71st & South Chicago. Next door is the eponymous youth center also built for the youth of "Pocket Town". Can't argue with keeping the young people out of trouble.

Also this with regards to Revere's absenteeism:
Back at Revere, attendance remained low. One reason, Comer learned, was that many students’ immunizations were not up-to-date. “Fifty to 100 kids couldn’t attend school because [of that],” says Schleicher. So the foundation partnered with the University of Chicago’s mobile clinic to provide free annual shots. Then, in 2009, the foundation partnered with the health care provider Access Health to open a clinic inside the youth center. It offers nutritional counseling, sex education, and psychotherapy to every Pocket Town child as of this year—all for free.
Well since this blog is named for my old elementary school, how did Revere fair thanks to Comer's help?
Unfortunately, when it comes to schools and housing, results have been mixed. Let’s start with Revere Elementary. Students initially showed significant academic improvement. For example, while only 20 percent of them met the national academic standards in 2001, 52 percent did in 2006. As a result, Revere came off academic probation.

But then progress stalled. According to Chicago Public Schools’ 2012 scorecard, less than 25 percent of Revere students meet the national student performance average. Unsurprisingly, Revere is back on probation. “The situation is dire now,” Taylor says sadly.

[Bill Schleicher, a longtime Comer adviser who manages the family’s assets] blames CPS red tape: “It cost us more money than we expected, and we did not get the type of results we wanted as soon as we wanted.”
Well, the idea was great. Still it's very important to do what you can to continue to fight for these neighborhoods. With some victories there are some defeats. Of course whatever slide Revere has seen, it's success thanks to Mr. Comer is something to be seen.

BTW, Gary Comer died of prostate cancer in 2007 and at least he left a legacy behind.