I have a special reason to be thankful tomorrow. It’s my privilege to help students at San Miguel School with their reading and writing. San Miguel is a Catholic middle school, located at 48th & Damen in Chicago. I not only help students with their schoolwork, but we launched a school newspaper, “The San Miguel Messenger.”

The name is perfect. It celebrates how angels, like San Miguel, serve as heaven’s heralds. The school is located in St. Michael the Archangel parish, founded in 1898 to serve a Slovak population. The parish is now Latino and many of the students come from Spanish-speaking households.

San Miguel was started by two Christian Brothers in 1995. They established a school to educate at-risk students of Hispanic backgrounds. They held classes in the convent and later expanded to the shuttered parish school and community center.

San Miguel is in a century-old building that was built in classic Catholic school style. The community center is more modern and contains a spacious gym. There are currently 96 students attending sixth, seventh and eighth grade. The annual budget is 1.4 million, 95% of which comes from donations. 

I was invited to teach at San Miguel by my cousin, John Conerty, who is head of the school board. John joined the board 10 years ago and immediately sponsored a student. He also mentored a student named Dominique. John didn’t just counsel the sixth-grader, he included him in his family’s activities. 

Dominique was named valedictorian of his class and obtained a quality high school education. He didn’t just earn a degree at the University of Illinois, he served on the university’s board of trustees. This is remarkable for a young man from Back of the Yards, where a tiny percentage of residents earn college degrees.

San Miguel is a sanctuary for families trying to escape the violence and poverty that surrounds them. One staff member served as a volunteer for 10 years, mostly to avoid gangbangers. All four of her sons thrived at San Miguel and have gone on to college. Sports and school activities kept her sons safe. 

It’s been a pleasure to teach and tutor motivated students. The principal suggested starting a school newspaper. San Miguel has a Renaissance Program in which students choose electives. Some are pure fun, like basketball and bean bags. Others are more demanding, like French and chess. I submitted a proposal to get the newspaper off the ground.

Four brave souls signed up. At our first session, the students chose their news beats. One reviews video games. Another reviews books. We also have a sports reporter and an advice columnist. I partner with an English teacher to help the students with their stories. 

The video game reviewer chose two tough games, Poppy Playtime and Hotel Rooms. The book reviewer chose Lucy in the Sky, a harrowing novel about a teenage girl. She carefully analyzed the book — without revealing the plot. 

Our sports journalist is the epitome of the roving reporter. She didn’t just cover the girls’ volleyball game, she played in it! Later, she roamed the hallways to get quotes from her teammates and coach. The advice columnist addressed student concerns like, “What’s a good way to stay away from trouble?”

My biggest concern was how we were going to do the design and layout. I needn’t have worried. Our crack staff are experts in combining columns with striking images. We met our deadline of launching the two-page newspaper online and in print before Thanksgiving. 

Our next issue will feature a profile of a staff member who found sanctuary at San Miguel. 

John Rice grew up in Oak Park, lives in Forest Park, and is a weekly columnist for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.

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