Eleven-year-old London Cobbs finished his math problem on the chalk board so fast he wanted to do another one. The fifth-grade student instead helped his classmate, Elijah Knight, work his problem.
The two students of St. Gregory Episcopal School in neighboring North Lawndale spent their final day of the school year last Thursday not only working math problems, but watching a movie in class-Transformers.
Their teacher, Willie Murrell, who’s taught at the school for nearly 20 years, usually lets the boys watch a movie this final day before school’s out for the year.
It was a typical last day for the students, but St. Gregory is not your typical elementary school. It’s an all-boys school sitting in the heart of the West Side. Located at 2130 S. Central Park, about a half block from the Blue Line el station, south of 21st Street, the school is something of a hidden gem. Except for the students, parents, staff and its few supporters, not many have heard of the school, officials there admit. And most people, they add, are surprised to learn there’s an all-boys school serving a West Side black community.
St. Gregory has existed for 46 years, and has been at its present location the last six. It was started in 1962 by Fr. Jack Whitehouse, a priest at Epiphany Episcopal Church on the Near West Side. The school was housed in the church at 201 S. Ashland until moving to its present location-a 110-year-old school building owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.
Fr. Whitehouse, now in his 80s and living in California, started St. Gregory for boys in the neighborhood who were just hanging out and not going to school.
“His goal was to get a hold of these kids and get them into school,” said Alexis Leslie, the school’s director of development.
St. Gregory, which serves Kindergarten through eighth grade, is a faith-based school. The students start the day with a morning prayer, and three days a week at noon, everyone gathers in a third-floor makeshift chapel for Mass.
St. Gregory has always been a boy’s school but enrolled mostly white students when it started. As West Side neighborhoods changed, white residents moved out and blacks moved in, the school’s student population trended African American.
The student population currently is entirely African American, but enrollment is open to any child regardless of race. This last school year, 62 students were enrolled. In the fall, enrollment is expected to reach 90. The school’s goal is to reach 135 students, but no more, Leslie said.
The small enrollment allows for smaller classrooms, she explained, with about 15 students per class. The school is funded by private donors and with some federal dollars. St. Gregory waved its tuition this past school year as some parents couldn’t afford it.
It was only a few hundred dollars, but the students come from mostly low-income, single-parent homes. Some students also enroll a grade or two behind where they should be, and a small number come from troubled homes. But the boys, Leslie insisted, don’t fit the “poor black child” stereotype.
“That’s not the message here,” she said.
Many of the students are high achievers and winners of national scholarships. Other students, like the group of boys sitting with their reading specialist on this day, receive tutoring if needed. Each of this year’s eighth-grade graduates also received $10,000 from a private donor for their high school or college education.
And because it currently serves young black boys, St. Gregory regularly brings in adult male role models, including former students. But the boys don’t need to look too far for a strong, black male role model. Teacher Willie Murrell has taught at the school since 1989. He kept a watchful eye on the boys as they watched their movie.
“These are pretty good kids,” he said. “They can all be playful at times, but this is a good school. We don’t have fighting; one of the reasons is because we’re small and it allows us to accomplish a lot of things.
“They really can’t hide here,” Murrell added about the boys. “They can’t fall through the cracks.”
St. Gregory was Murrell’s first job out of college. He’s one of three male teachers, but is considered the “Male Voice” at the school.
“This is the one place where I know that I’m needed,” he said.
In a first-floor classroom, teacher Michelle Carter, who’s been with the school since February, goes over an English assignment with her fourth-grade class. Student Brandon McBee, 10, said English is one of his favorite subjects. He also likes his school and classmates.
“It’s good here,” said Brandon, who aspires to be a rapper or a professional football player. “We can play football because there’s a lot of boys here. And you can learn a lot, and the teachers are nice.”
On this last day of school, the eighth-graders, who graduated on June 6, wore their regular clothes, but all of the boys primarily wear white shirts, dark ties and dark pants during most days of the week.
The graduates also passed down a school tradition last Thursday. The eighth-graders typically lead the noon Mass procession. For their final Mass, they helped the seventh-graders prepare for the service. The seventh-graders will lead Mass next school year and last week was a learning experience for them. Some of the seventh-graders had trouble putting on their robes, but the eighth-graders were there to assist them.
Keeping a close eye on this last Mass of the school year, and on St. Gregory, was Marguerite Jackson, the school’s principal for the last two years.
Jackson first applied to St. Gregory in 2006 as a teacher after retiring from the Chicago Public Schools as an administrator. St. Gregory’s Board of Directors, however, asked her to serve as its principal. She calls the school “the best kept secret on the West Side.”
“I stepped up because I realized that there’s so much great potential here in the building,” she said. “These are some of the finest young men you’ll ever meet. There’s such a dynamic story here to be told, but as word gets out about the job we’re doing here, I think St. Gregory will have a name in the community and surrounding areas.”