By Ken Trainor
The first quote you see at Catalyst-Circle Rock School, Central and Washington in the Austin neighborhood a few blocks east of us, is Gandhi's "Be the change you wish to see in the world."
But it's not the last. You can't walk very far down any hallway without coming across an inspirational quote, but that first one captures the spirit of the place. It summarizes why they call it "Catalyst."
Ed Siderewicz, the Catalyst Network's vice president for Mission and External Relations, and an Oak Park resident, also embodies the spirit of the place. A former Christian Brother (there are several on staff), he notes that the principles of the De La Salle Christian Brothers guides this enterprise, which means educating those in greatest need.
"This is not for the elite," Siderewicz said. "That is the Christian Brothers' mission."
Circle Rock is now officially a Chicago Public School, operating as a charter. What about separation of church and state?
"That's the journey we're on," he said. "We're writing the book on it."
And it has been a journey. The school emerged from the San Miguel system, started on the South Side in the mid-'90s by the late philanthropist Gary Comer (the founder of Lands' End). Campuses were later added in Lawndale and Austin.
The West Side San Miguel officially closed in 2012 and Catalyst was launched at the invitation of former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan.
Originally, the Austin campus was located in the former Help of Christians parish school building. Two years ago, Jack Flynn from River Forest, an advocate for inner-city education, suggested moving over to their current location, which is owned by Circle Rock Church, but was originally Siena High School until it closed after the 1969-70 school year. Circle Urban Ministries, a nonprofit arm of the Circle Rock, had been operating a school there and were willing to let Catalyst take over. After exploratory discussions with Circle Rock's Glen Kehrein and Amy Soudan, Catalyst launched the K-8 facility eight years ago, following a $1 million rehab of the building.
The scholar population (they're not called "students") has doubled to 500 in that time and they boast a 90 percent graduation rate.
"This building is bursting at the seams," Siderewicz said. Admission is open. There is no screening. Being part of the public school system, "we can't select," he noted, "but it's also our preference to work with those who need it most."
Expectations are high. "High school is not negotiable," Siderewicz said, and pennants for well-known universities line the hallways. Catalyst has adopted many of the techniques used by the more successful inner-city schools: longer school year, longer school days, a strong emphasis on literacy, and uniforms (forest green shirts). The classrooms feature lamp lighting to create a more ambiant classroom environment. Circle Urban Ministries runs an after-school program.
Catalyst also emphasizes the arts through the Renaissance Program, which includes classes in jazz dance, chess, ballroom dancing, healthy cooking and gymnastics.
Ravinia runs an extension program here with a paid staff member assigned just to this school. The Ravinia Women's Board purchased 90 instruments, and professional musicians are paid to work with the kids. The orchestra rehearses after school and has played at Ravinia Park. The old Siena High School auditorium seats a thousand.
Jesse Connor, who runs the program, said it is based on El Sistema in Venezuela, which promotes "music for social reform." It promotes discipline, a sense of community, and "getting along," she said.
"It's all about the mission," Siderewicz said, which encourages a sense of reverence (not specifically religious), teaching the "whole child," and walking the tightwire between challenging and nurturing.
"Everyone who works here believes it's more than a job," he said. The popular principal last year, Mike Kasang, for instance, started with Teach for America. He's now director of communications and engagement for Catalyst's Network Development Operations. Ayanna Mitchell is the new principal.
So they have a lot going for them — but still need help.
What they need is every school's secret weapon: More tutors.
That was the reason for my visit last May at the behest of Bill and Lynne Higgins of River Forest. Bill volunteers here for several days a week, in the large multipurpose room, bounded by a wall of curved windows that gave Siena High School such a modern look once upon a time.
Students come here throughout the day, referred by their teachers, to get help on specific subjects from volunteers. The program is overseen by three nuns, Sr. Helen Strueder, Sr. Donna Cirone, and Sr. Julice Bots.
Sr. Helen, a Franciscan, was the principal at Holy Angels School on the South Side (Rev. George Clements was the pastor) for 43 years. She remembers a young Barack Obama working in the community. Most of her volunteers are like Mike Schrauth of Glenview, who was on hand with his grandson the day we visited. A retiree (as are most of their volunteers), Mike got involved through the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. He's been doing this twice a week, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., for a decade.
"The reward comes from seeing the kids make progress." He works with them on math and language arts, often with those who are below grade level. "Seeing them move up is terrific," he said.
"The kids are mostly eager to learn," he noted, reaching out a big hand to high-five passing kids or pat them on the shoulder. Schrauth spent 11 years in the military and four years working for the government before getting into ad sales for a publishing company. So he recognizes leadership and admires Sr. Helen.
"She knows how to run schools," he said. In general, "the enthusiasm and spirit of the teachers and staff" make the difference.
Up in the balcony is the library, run by Kathy Donohue, who said she enjoys the family atmosphere at Catalyst, and finds the kids "charming." She also doubles as the Web master and noted that all the students are getting iPads this year.
A graduate of the Dominican University School of Library Science, her connection there — along with fellow Dominican grad Sharon Morgan, director of community outreach (and an Oak Park resident) — has facilitated a partnership with the university. River Forest and Austin are worlds apart, but it's a short distance to drive, and easy for the Dominican students to get to. Many volunteer in Catalyst's summer program.
Morgan is also director of graduate support. Catalyst tracks their grads through high school in case they need support. As they get older, she recruits them to come back and volunteer.
Bill Higgins was recruited by Oak Park vascular surgeon Bill Baker over breakfast last September.
"I began the following week," he said. These days, "I come to school as the spirit moves me, on my time clock." The school appreciates whatever he can give, which is 3-4 days a week for 3-4 hours. Lynne has her own volunteer gig at Rush Oak Park Hospital but tries to go to Catalyst one day a week.
The Higgins belong to what is called "The Literacy Brigade," which focuses mostly on language arts, with some math. They usually work with the younger kids, grades 1-4.
"Being retired," Bill said, "this activity is motivating," though he finds math a challenge. "I think I have learned more about math than during my years of formal schooling!" Fortunately, there is help.
"When I meet that problem that fails to easily resolve, I go to Sister Helen or Sister Donna for the how-to-do-it answer."
It's nice, he said, because the kids are willing to learn.
"The nicest paycheck I have received is when one of the male second-graders finished and shouted back to me, 'Mr. Bill, thanks for your help.'
"I don't think I have experienced so much satisfaction and joy," he said.