Rehabbed Chicago Jesuit Academy Puts West Side Students on College Track

The $7.6-million renovation of the all-boys brick-and-stone school took eight years to complete and is set to double enrollment for kids in one of Chicago's most underserved neighborhoods.

Photo by: Chicago Jesuit Academy A shot of early progress on the academy's rehabbed gymnasium. Before the building was purchased from the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2007, it sat shuttered and neglected for years. Architectural firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz offered services at a substantial discount.

This is a quintessential Chicago West Side story, with blackboards as the backdrop. Against overwhelming odds, a school in an academic desert turned disadvantaged kids into motivated, high-scoring achievers. 

Chicago Jesuit Academy is situated in a thick pocket of drug, crime and gang-activity hustling two blocks away. "It has a profound impact on what happens with kids in our classrooms," says president and founder Matthew Lynch, describing the two worlds these children live in. Ira Glass' radio program This American Life put it in context with a two-part story on Harper High, a school with strong parallels to the academy. “It was the best piece of reporting on what our schools go through," said Lynch. "It's difficult, hard, messy work. Our guys find [the curriculum] very challenging. They're aspiring to do something with all this hard work that most of their peers have never accomplished." 

The majority of these 5th- through 8th-grade students — most of them from struggling elementary schools — enter with test scores dipping at least two grades below the norm; many test much lower. And the predominately black and Mexican-American student body forms part of an uncomfortable statistic: Within the entire public high school population of Chicago, less than 3 percent of African-American students earn a college degree by the time they're 25. 

But Lynch sees these young minds through a different lens. “These are strong, talented, amazing young men who have not been given a chance,” says the soft-spoken educator of the 109 students currently enrolled, all on full scholarship. They're competing with affluent schools with private tutoring, music lessons, sports programs. "We're trying to give them the social capital that they need, academic tools and nurturing to prepare them."

Photo by: Steve Donisch The all-boys middle school prepares students for college-prep high school and university on a strenuous, concentrated schedule. The young men attend on full scholarship and, on average, complete seven years of academic studies within four years. 

It's a daunting mission, magnified by recent school closings and cuts in services. But this academy developed a model that works. That meant smaller class sizes, longer school days (10-and-a-half hours) a longer school year (11 months) and more hands-on tracking and counseling with what Lynch calls a "persistence team" that works with students and alumni — from college prep through college — to help navigate financial aid and the admissions process. To date 93 percent of their first graduating class went on to two- and four-year universities. And the most recent class graduated at the 11th-grade level.

The long-range plan was to double enrollment, but the campus was still in transition and had to first address basic needs. Lynch runs down the list: "A cafeteria, a safe and warm gym, a place where our talented musicians could practice."  The elegant expansion design from Solomon Cordwell Buenz's team and build from general contractor Walsh Construction did both, adding about 25,000 square feet to the structure and creating enough space to accommodate an increasing student body over the next seven years while zeroing in on the practical. There's now a nurses' office, a chapel, new classrooms, and a cafeteria and kitchen where these kids can get a hot breakfast and lunch, essentials usually taken for granted.

Lynch is modest about receiving credit for the school's achievements and points instead to his charges. "It takes a heroic effort for a young man to do what our students are doing," he says in sober reflection. "For most of our students, the weight of material poverty becomes a crushing element they can't escape." 

And yet, this school is a reminder that young people are capable of remarkable things. 

Building dedication ceremony is Friday, Oct. 11, between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. at Chicago Jesuit Academy, 5058 West Jackson Blvd. 

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