Commonwealth Edison CEO Frank Clark has kept an eye on the West Side and Austin.
A South Side native, Clark has sparred with the South Austin Coalition over increased energy rates, and has hobnobbed with Austin politicians on certain issues.
But Clark and ComEd have also kept an eye on West Side youth.
Clark grew up in Englewood, a neighborhood not unlike West Humboldt Park where the Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy opened last fall.
Clark and ComEd have donated millions to the West Side charter school, located just north in neighboring Humboldt Park.
As the son of a single mother and one of eight children born and raised in Englewood, Clark stood in front of Rowe Clark’s 150 freshmen – it’s inaugural class – as its “Principal for a day” last October.
But he wasn’t just the day’s ceremonial principal, he was a role model who has lived in similar circumstances – and found success.
“I met resistance from my peers for doing something they were not doing,” Clark, 52, told the students.
He started out working in the mailroom of the multi-billion dollar company that he now runs, but the road to the top was not always easy, he said.
“I met resistance for doing well in school, when I was in an environment where doing well in school was not only not appreciated, it often was not considered ‘black,'” Clark said. “…These are all barriers these kids will have to overcome. They have to believe in themselves, even when no one else does.”
Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy, 3645 W. Chicago Avenue, opened last year as one of the city’s Renaissance 2010 schools.
Clark and his wife, Vera, donated $200,000 to the academy, located in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Exelon Corp. CEO, John Rowe, and his wife, Jean, donated $2 million.
In all, ComEd, its parent company Exelon Corps., and senior officers have donated $4.2 million to the school, one of the largest contributions to a Chicago charter school.
Similar corporate partnerships will help sprout the 100 news schools the city promises to open by the year 2010.
“The company has invested in a lot in schools, but this is the first time there have been efforts of this magnitude,” said Randy Mehrberg, an executive vice president with Exelon. “Frank, Vera, John and Jean dug very deep into their pockets. It’s an initiative of tremendous effort, and it’s not just corporate, it’s personal.”
Rowe-Clark students attend an extra month of school and get 33 percent more reading and math instruction. In fact, Clark emphasized the need to train more mathematicians and scientists in order to spur economic growth in the United States.
But despite the close relationships, most businesses insist they’re not in the education business, and they note that there’s a big difference between private funding and private managing.
Donors, though, are involving themselves at a hands-on level, for instance, by having employees conduct tutoring sessions with struggling students. Also, several companies offer internships for the most successful students.
During last fall’s “Principal for a Day,” both Clark and Mehrberg worked with students, sitting in classes and urging them to stay focused in school.
Exelon and ComEd have remained actively involved in the school.
Since the majority of ComEd’s employees are products of the Chicago Public School system, Clark said it makes sense to invest in the future of today’s students.
Clark rose from his own modest childhood to earn a bachelor’s degree and law degree from DePaul University. He later climbed to the top ranks of one of the nation’s largest public utility companies.
“The lion’s share of our employees comes from local schools, so we are going to do everything we can to support the system, and, hopefully, these kids will become our employees,” Clark said.
Ron Burns, Rowe-Clark’s student advisor and basketball coach, said the corporate interaction is invaluable for the students.
“They get a chance to see who is behind the scenes and share their stories with them. They hear it from me, but now they get a chance to hear from someone else,” Burns said.
Terry Dean, and Medill reporters Patrick Temple-West, Karla L. Yeh and Ki Mae Heussner, contributed to this story