Magazine article Momentum

Redefining "Community" to Benefit Inner-City Students

Magazine article Momentum

Redefining "Community" to Benefit Inner-City Students

Article excerpt

Business leaders and broader community sustain Philadelphia's

Just as no man is truly an island, no school can be isolated from the community and succeed. But how can inner-city schools-especially independent ones-generate the outside support they need when the odds are often stacked against them?

Philadelphia's Gesu School relies on a mission-oriented focus and entrepreneurial approach to beat those odds in securing extensive business and community support. As the country's only independent Jesuit and IHM inner-city elementary school, Gesu has been heralded as a national model for its success in educating the children society often leaves behind.

The very existence of Gesu School would be in jeopardy without the involvement and financial support of business and the broader community. That involvement is embodied by an ecumenical board of trustee-an extremely committed group of nearly five dozen business executives, educators, philanthropists, parents, religious leaders, alumni and community leaders from all faiths and all walks of life.

Recognizing the Need

Why does this microcosm of the community care about one school serving 445 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students in the heart of one of North Philadelphia's toughest neighborhoods?

Because they're driven by the need for justice in education and the knowledge that what occurs in the inner city affects the entire region. Because they recognize that a quality education-one that helps children become productive citizens who lead fulfilled lives-can break the cycle of poverty and dysfunctional families. And, more than anything else, because they see that the school works.

Gesu had served as a parish school for many decades under the experienced direction of the Society of Jesus and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). But by the late 1980s, as the Catholic community dwindled and the parish struggled to support itself, the school's head, Jesuit Father George Bur, realized that help from the outside would be needed to keep Gesu afloat. He turned to his former St. Joseph's Prep classmate, Winston J. (Win) Churchill, a venture capitalist who saw the school's inherent value to the community. Mr. Churchill began to seek financial support from colleagues such as Philadelphia investors Mark Solomon and Peter Miller, who joined the fundraising effort immediately.

When the Archdiocese of Philadelphia decided to consolidate parishes and close the Gesu Church, Cardinal Anthony Bevilaequa encouraged the Jesuit provincial and the IHM superior to keep the school open. Father Bur and Gesu's principal, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Ellen Convey, supported this effort with enthusiasm, and a diverse, value-added board of trustees was established to govern the newly independent school.

Proving Our Worth

Business executives like Messrs. Churchill, Solomon and Miller were the first of many to realize that a school like Gesu is a worthwhile investment. Children in the area struggle daily with the scourge of poverty, violence and despair in neighborhoods where fewer than half of the teenagers graduate high school. Yet something magical happens when students walk through Gesu's doors. The light goes on. True learning takes place. Hope is restored.

That is made possible thanks to the quality of mission-driven teachers and staff and the strong leadership of two full-time IHM sisters, who infuse Gesu with their extensive experience in urban education and the firm belief that every child can learn. Students also benefit from Jesuit funding and the involvement of two full-time Jesuit priests. The faculty sets high academic expectations and addresses each student's needs from a holistic perspective, with every teacher and staff member going above and beyond in contributing to collective school goals.

As Gesu increased its ability to demonstrate success in the classroom, "word-of-mouth" efforts multiplied exponentially, with existing board members welcoming business associates to see for themselves how Gesu is making a dramatic difference. …

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