The Gesu School Story

When the first Jesuits arrived in Philadelphia in 1733, they purchased a plot of land a few blocks from the old city center in order to construct the city’s first Catholic church. The climate for Catholics was not exactly hospitable at the time—a Father Greaton reportedly wore Quaker garb in order to avoid stirring up discontent.

No such exertions could hope to mitigate against the barrage of complaints launched when St. Joseph’s Church was finally completed. Local Protestants called the church a “Popish chapel” and claimed its presence was in violation of the law, which stated that only Protestants could purchase land for church use. Still, the Jesuits remained and eventually established a boys’ college on the property.

In 1868, the society decided to move to an area north of the city where Irish, Italian, and Slavic immigrants were beginning to settle. Downtown had become too commercial for the Jesuits’ liking, and they were in need of more space. They purchased a site on the corner of 17th and Stiles Streets and over the course of the next twenty years, built a parish elementary school, new college facilities, and a massive baroque cathedral, partly modeled after and named for the Gesu Church in Rome. Their efforts amounted to a parish home for twenty thousand Catholics living in North Philadelphia at the turn of the century, and tuition-free education was available to parishioners from the first grade through college.

Over the next several decades, North Philadelphia, which was hit hard during the Depression, steadily deteriorated. Many homes were abandoned, and beginning in the sixties, the area became rife with violence and drug activity. The parish gradually diminished in size to just a few hundred families. St. Joseph’s University had moved to the main line area, and St. Joseph’s high school for boys educated fewer and fewer neighborhood children, most of whom were not prepared for the school’s rigorous academic standards. Only the parish elementary school continued to serve the immediate area—now home to a disadvantaged, mainly non-Catholic, African-American population.

By the late 1980s, the Gesu parish was struggling to support itself, and in 1993, in a move many parishioners considered inevitable, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia closed Gesu and two neighboring parishes as part of a plan to consolidate the North Philadelphia area. The Gesu elementary school, however, never closed its doors. Before Cardinal Bevilacqua decided to close the parish, Gesu parishioners decided to bank their dwindling funds on the Gesu School’s operation expenses rather than on other parish needs. The Jesuits and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who have also served the school for more than a hundred years, made known to the cardinal their own firm commitment to the Gesu School and to the children of North Philadelphia. When Cardinal Bevilacqua closed the parish, he asked the Jesuits and the sisters to keep the school open, not as a parish-supported institution, but as an independent school. As such, Gesu is one of the few, if not the only, private Jesuit elementary schools in the nation.

While Gesu may be singular with respect to its status, its history is far from unique. Over the course of this century, as Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland point out in their widely praised study, Catholic Schools and the Common Good, the face of Catholic education, particularly in urban areas, has changed dramatically. This is not to say that Catholic schools in the old style no longer exist—they do. What is the case, at least in America’s cities, is that many of today’s parochial schools would be, in some respects, unrecognizable to the graduates of sixty and seventy years ago. In addition to serving students of different religious and cultural stripes, for instance, since Vatican II, urban Catholic schools have had fewer members of religious orders on staff. Gesu was once staffed and run entirely by nuns and Jesuits. Now there are only four sisters and three Jesuits who work there; the other staff members are laymen and women.

In the midst of this evolution, what has become increasingly apparent to many is that Catholic schools seem particularly well suited to nurture and to successfully educate America’s urban poor. The co-authors of Catholic Schools and the Common Good conclude that the following aspects of Catholic education are worthy of note and, to the extent possible, imitation: a core curriculum, decentralized school government, a strong sense of community, and an “inspirational ideology.” A school experience that rests on these features, they contend, benefits particularly those children whose lives out of school are encompassed by disorder, fragmentation, and a lack of discipline. In such cases, a Catholic school can provide its students with something to hold onto and, in doing so, educate them.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani suggested as much in a speech last August when he stated that the beleaguered New York City public school system might find a model for reform in the American parochial school system. Many parents and educators were incensed by the mayor’s message, claiming that the differences between public and parochial education are inherently too vast to allow for the sort of borrowing the mayor seemed to support. Still, across the country, there are many who believe that statistics alone serve as evidence that Catholic schools, especially in urban areas, are doing some of the things that public schools should be doing but have so far failed to do. Students at Gesu, for example, score well above their friends at nearby public schools on standardized tests. Most go on to graduate from high school, and more than three-quarters attend college, which is particularly noteworthy in an area where the public school drop-out rate is reportedly gaining on 65 percent.

It was 1989, while attending a board meeting at Georgetown University, when Philadelphia-based venture capitalist Winston J. Churchill learned that the Gesu School was in dire need of financial assistance. Churchill is an alumnus of St. Joseph’s Prep; Gesu is now housed in the building where he studied as a high school student. At the behest of his friend, Father James A. Devereux, S.J., the Jesuit provincial of the Province of Maryland,Churchill took a drive out to Gesu where his former classmate, Father George Bur, S.J., also a friend of Father Devereux, was then the pastor. The school was being subsidized by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at the time, but money for improvements was badly needed—only one of the
building’s three floors was in use, and a million dollars allotted by the Province of Maryland was tied up in renovation work on the basement. The two men decided that afternoon that they would establish a development board for the Gesu School to come up with the funds necessary to upgrade the building.

When Gesu was asked to become independent in 1993, Churchill and Father Bur did not miss a beat. The school’s development board quickly became the governing board. Churchill incorporated the school as a nonprofit organization and assumed the position of chairman; Father Bur became the school’s president; and Sister Ellen Convey, I.H.M., retained the position of principal. Together the board members decided to launch a “Millennium Campaign” in an effort to raise enough money to sustain the school’s operations into the year 2000—a sum of $1.5 million. The board, which convenes in the school’s recently renovated library, has just about secured its goal, along with some excess money specified by the donors for special projects. With operation expenses nearly accounted for, board members are looking to concentrate on raising substantial capital for such projects. Among these is a community-wide mentoring program, which will provide after school academic enrichment for local public and private-school students, along with high school scholarship awards. Gesu hopes to have the program up and running some time this year.

According to Churchill, Gesu is an “easy sell” in the Philadelphia business community. “We’ve had our pick of the city’s well-intentioned people,” he says. “Ours is a 90 to 95 percent hit rate.” These “well- intentioned” are not all Catholics, either. The Gesu board of trustees, in addition to parents and Gesu alumni, includes business leaders from a variety of cultural and religious traditions.

What attracts these supporters, explains Mark I. Solomon, who is chairman of CMS Companies, a personal investment banking firm and who raises money for Gesu, is the school’s readily apparent success with its students. “If I were to take any businessman in Philadelphia to the school and show him the ‘product,’ or, the student that comes out of Gesu, and then tell him what such an investment would cost him, he would be crazy not to get behind it.” Solomon says. “At Gesu, you can walk into a classroom of fourth graders and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and you’re not going to get the usual football player or basketball player; you’re going to hear words like pediatrician and physicist. The care these kids receive is of a special nature, and they believe in themselves. To me it’s quite simple—if we care about the future of our community, we need to be at Gesu.”

It was 1985 when Daryl Shore, now a sophomore at the Prep, enrolled as a kindergartner at Gesu. His mother was just able to scrape together the tuition money, now amounting to $1,420 annually, in order that Daryl might be ensured a safe place to go and receive an education. But some time during the fifth grade, “things went bad,” as Daryl tells it. His mother, who suffers from alcoholism, left her job and was no longer able to care for Daryl or to pay the Gesu tuition. Daryl moved in with his grandmother, and his father, who also has trouble with alcohol, managed to give him some money here and there. Daryl gave all of the money to Gesu. Sister Ellen and Father Neil VerSchneider, S.J., worked it out so that Daryl would be allowed to make his tuition payments as he was able; they arranged for him to do some clean-up work after school for credit toward what he owed; and they gave him pocket money and money for clothing as they could.

Daryl was deeply depressed during that time, he recalls. He was maintaining a C average and imagined that after Gesu, he would attend the public high school nearby and that would be it as far as his education was concerned. “Given my background and being black,” he says, “I thought I had no chance to get anywhere.” Then came the California Achievement Tests.

The day the results came in, Daryl remembers, he received a letter in class stating that he would not be able to return to Gesu until a sum of nearly $1,000 was paid in full. He was in the sixth grade. He believed that Sister Ellen, who was aware that he was trying as best he could to fund his own education, had betrayed him. When Sister Ellen called Daryl to the office that afternoon, he assumed the matter she wanted to discuss was money. But there was something else Sister Ellen wanted to talk about. The letter, she said, was a formality—she apologized to Daryl and asked him to disregard it. What Sister Ellen mainly wanted to relay were Daryl’s test scores. As it turned out, he had received the highest score in the school on his achievement tests. “You have the highest IQ in the school,” Sister Ellen told him.

Daryl went home that afternoon to his grandmother’s house, and instead of turning on the television he took out his books. His grandmother’s response, he remembers, was, “I better go pray. It looks like the world might be coming to an end.” Beginning that day, Daryl says, he believed he could “really do some things,” and it was then that he started to try. Daryl received straight A’s for the rest of his career at Gesu, and now, as a fifteen-year-old sophomore at the Prep, which provides one of the finest educations in Philadelphia, he is an honors student and rows crew. He says his goal is to attend the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton Business School and to become an entrepreneur.

“If I had to write an essay about the person who has meant the most to me in my life,” Daryl relates, “I would have to change the topic to the institution that has meant the most to me. Without Gesu I can honestly, say I might be dead right now, or dealing drugs. There’s something very special about that place, and everybody who has gone there knows it. We were all a family at Gesu—the teachers cared about who I was and who I became, and they prepared me for the challenges I’m facing in my life now.”

It is the Gesu faculty’s love and real concern for each student, tempered by discipline and a firm hand, that makes Gesu more than a place to learn history, math, and science. Gesu is a school in the old sense. It is a place where parents know that their children will be nurtured and enriched, and where they can be assured that their children will learn right from wrong; it is a place where children feel important, where they feel challenged and where they feel safe; it provides a place where friends and families can gather; it is a community.

While the Gesu student body is largely underprivileged, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles alike are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to send their children to the school. This is because Gesu has consistently provided the intellectual and spiritual training that concerned relatives know their children will not be able to receive otherwise. They recognize that without an education their children have little hope of transcending the social conditions that pervade the inner city. In turn, parents are required and desire to promote Gesu—they organize several community-wide fund-raising events every year.

The sense of community found at Gesu is, in part, a result of its size. The school is small, serving 450 students from pre-K through the eighth grade. The children know each other as individuals, not as numbers, and as such, they are accountable to one another. But Gesu’s close-knit atmosphere has to do with much more than enrollment figures—it has to do, primarily, with the dedication of Gesu’s teachers. Quite simply, they do a lot more than teach. They are counselors, moderators, coaches, and friends. They get to school early and leave late.

There is not a single teacher at Gesu who does not willingly give his or her time outside of class to students. Mark McConnon, for example, spends Saturdays at the school with his students helping them with their homework and leading sports activities. Joseph Calabro has his seventh-graders down to his parents’ home in South Philadelphia regularly for pasta dinners. Shirley Bright, who has taught at Gesu for nearly half of her twenty-year career and who is herself a Gesu graduate, writes, directs, and produces school plays every year. Given Gesu’s average salary, Father Bur points out, which is a great deal less than what teachers make elsewhere, the faculty’s commitment to its students seems remarkable.

Over the years, Gesu’s lack of resources has forced its teachers to bring their creativity to the fore. While Gesu owns several computer terminals, for instance, far from being financially able to provide its children with access to state-of-the-art technology, the school cannot afford even to hire a full-time computer teacher. Nor can Gesu hire a full-time music teacher. An alumnus of the Prep, who is an accomplished musician, currently teaches music one day a week. The Gesu board of trustees hopes to raise enough money to bolster the school’s academic program in the near future. Until then, it is left to teachers to compensate in their individual classrooms for what the school is unable to provide.

While they possess a free hand so far as teaching goes, Gesu’s faculty welcomes the structure of the archdiocesan standard curriculum, which Gesu has continued to implement since its break with the archdiocese in 1993. For one, explains first-grade teacher Bernice Ficklin, “What the curriculum does for the children is provide some much-needed consistency in their lives. They know it’s not going to be A today and Z tomorrow.” Then there is the belief, which has always been one of the tenets of Catholic education, that a knowledge of the fundamentals will benefit students as whole individuals, as well as better equip them for their life’s pursuits. “Our kids may not know WordPerfect when they go to apply for a job later in life,” Gesu’s director of development, Stephen Vitunic, points out, “but unlike a lot of adults, they will know how to read. You can always teach someone to use a computer—it’s a lot harder to teach them how to think.”

Sticking to the basics doesn’t preclude curriculum-wide innovation, and this year, at the recommendation of the archdiocesan committee, Gesu has adopted a new means by which to teach grammar, reading, and writing at every level. The Integrated Language Arts program allows teachers to use literature as a springboard for grammar lessons. During the fall, Calabro had half of his class read The Island of the Blue Dol­ phins and the other half read The Outsiders. Grammar lessons were based on passages found in the novels. Students learned to write descriptive paragraphs; they wrote biographical sketches of the characters they read about; they wrote first-person narratives assuming the viewpoints of various characters.

Calabro says his students have turned in projects of up to twelve pages over the course of the year. “We’re really getting somewhere with these kids,” he explains, “and it has to do with standards. Every day I set goals with the class, and every day we achieve those goals. If I show them that I’m going to settle for nothing less than the best, then they’ll settle for nothing less than the best.” Indeed, maintaining high academic standards is something that the Gesu faculty is keen on doing. The idea is that children flourish where things are expected of them, in spite of the experiences that may cause them difficulty at home. This is not to say that Gesu teachers turn a blind eye to strain in the personal lives of their students. On the contrary, the teachers are very involved in their students’ personal lives. Trouble outside of school, however, is not to be an excuse for unsatisfactory work. While Gesu still has some ways to go before it becomes the school that both faculty and administrators envision, says Father Bur, students improve academically every year.

Perhaps the biggest structural change implemented at Gesu since it became independent occurred last year, when the faculty and administration decided, based on their own observations and on outside research, that it would be to the students’ advantage if the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade classes were segregated according to gender. The process was surprisingly expedient. This is because at Gesu there is only one place to take proposals—to the board meeting. In the absence of bureaucratic entanglements, says Father Bur, Gesu is able to better attend to the unique needs of its students. “We can take note of problems or areas that need attention and translate those observations into action almost immediately,” he explains.

The effort to reestablish single-gender classrooms for certain grades was designed, says fourth-grade girls teacher Beverly Duncan, in order to “save our African-American boys.” According to recent statistics, many African-American boys decide whether they will stake an interest in school for the long haul, not during high school, as drop-out rates might suggest, but during the middle-school years. This, as the argument goes, has in large part to do with the absence of male role models in the boys’ lives. “The boys have so much anger,” says Duncan. “When they see a man in the classroom before them, they think, ‘What gives you the right to be an authority over me?’ because they’re used to being dominated by women. We’re looking to bring positive role models before these boys, men who will set good examples and encourage the boys to focus on school. Whether the men are white or black, we’re looking for positive role models, period.”

When the Jesuits founded the Gesu parish school 125 years ago, they founded it upon an ethos of Christian service. What Gesu, like most Catholic schools, hopes to engender in its students is the inclination to help those who are in need and the spiritual wherewithal to contribute their talents where they are required without expecting something in return. Students at Gesu encounter examples of this ethos in their teachers on a daily basis; and they experience, also on a daily basis, a rich tradition of language and ritual, which affirms that ethos, in the form of the Catholic faith.

So far as Gesu’s ethos is measurable, it is perhaps most evident in the desire expressed by so many of its alumni to give their time and talent back to the school that nurtured them. A number of the current teachers at Gesu, for example, are alumni who grew up in the immediate neighborhood. For her part, Beverly Duncan, who sent her own children to Gesu, refuses to leave the area. She has brought her children up just blocks away from where she herself was brought up, and she sees her efforts at Gesu as the continual fulfillment of her obligation to a struggling community.

“If I were to gather some colleagues together and take them on a retreat with the aim of creating the perfect school,” offers Gesu trustee Mark I. Solomon, “we would create the Gesu School. And since Gesu already exists, we need to get behind it. The truth is, we simply need more of them.”

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At the time this article was published, Stacy Mattingly was a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.

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