“Looking sharp” shouts Rob Evans to one of his students as kids hurry to their next class before the bell rings.
At Christ the King High School, a Jesuit school in Chicago’s Austin community, the dress code for students is strictly professional. Boys wear shirts and ties; girls suit pants, blouses and maybe a sweater as well. Evans, the school’s new principal, acknowledges that one male student for also sporting a blazer on this day.
Since school started on Aug. 23, Evans says each week, each day is never the same.
That’s one of the reasons he came to the Austin school from a post as an assistant principal in St. Louis. Evans likes getting out of his office to walk around the building and meet with the kids. While walking the building on a late Monday morning, he looks in on a few classes. The former classroom teacher spots a major no-no in the school’s library/media center.
“What’s this?” he asks one student while tapping them on the shoulder. Students are not allowed to listen to MP3 players, he reminds the student, before taking the device and headphones and putting them into his pocket. Unable to get the attention of another student listening to an MP3 player, Evans gently pulls the earpiece from the student’s ear before asking him to hand it over.
“See me after school,” Evans tells him.
The lab’s teacher explains that he didn’t spot the MP3 players because he was on the other side of the room with other students. Evans says it’s alright; kids can be pretty quick, he admits. If running such a large school takes a firm yet calm approach, Evans seems able to do that with a certain ease.
Continuing his stroll, Evans picks up paper and other small amounts of trash left around lockers. It’s during this time of the school day that he likes to be out in the building. He does his other administrative duties first thing in the morning at around 6:30 when he gets in and at the end of the school day.
“When school is going on it’s tough to do those things because you want to be in the classrooms, [and] walk the halls. You want students to see you. You want to support the teachers by being a visible presence in the school,” he said.
Christ the King is part of a national network of Jesuit schools operated by the Cristo Rey Network. There are now more than 20 schools located in urban areas across the country. Austin’s is the first new Catholic school on the West Side in more than 80 years. Located on the site of the former Resurrection Parish, the building broke ground in summer 2008 and was completed in December 2009. While the school was under construction, the school’s freshmen held classes at a temporary site in Austin. Roughly 180 students are currently enrolled; the first graduating class will be in 2012.
Evans, a married father of three-1, 8 and 12-years-old-lives in Oak Park, was hired at Christ the King in May. He arrived from St. Louis University High School where he was an assistant principal and also taught one class. The Memphis native had aspirations of someday becoming a principal, but wasn’t currently pursuing a position. Christ the King, though, approached him about their job.
“It definitely wasn’t something I was looking for. It was God working and ordering my steps,” Evans said.
He has a few simple goals for the school: one is to build on the school’s rigorous courses for students and professional development for teachers.
“I tell teachers, students, anybody-when we think about some of the things we can negotiate on; one thing we can’t negotiate on is our ability to get better; we’re going to get better everyday.
“As far as a vision for the school,” Evans said, “I look forward to the day when I can tell people that all of our students go on to college. And not only go to college but they graduate in four or five years. So we want to make sure that’s happening.”
Evans also talked about expectations for students, wanting to create “academic rock stars.” To achieve that, though, entails having kids buy into the notion that it’s “cool” to be educated. Some students do get that while others need to be brought along, he said. The families who send their kids to Christ the King do, Evans adds.
“So what does that mean exactly? What does that look like tangibly for folks-that it’s cool to be smart,” he asked.
Evans says he’s big fan of education versus “schooling.” Getting good grades for behaving properly doesn’t mean kids are learning, he insists.
“I tell students all the time that I’d rather see that I worked really hard for it and learned a lot than receiving an easy ‘A’ that I didn’t learn anything for,” Evans said. “That type of achievement is what I want to work really closely with my colleagues and the students to create.”
He admits that’s made difficult because of the mixed messages kids receive in music on TV and in the books they read.
“If we aren’t intentional with our plans to bring them along, they can easily get caught up in the culture of it all,” he said.
Evans was a history major in college and also considered a career in law. He got a masters in international relations because of his interest in history and political science-he’s currently working on his doctorate.
At his former school, Evans created a modern African history and politics course that he taught. He ran track from grade school through college and also briefly played football in high school. During his first weeks at Christ the King, Evans played some volleyball and football with his students. But Evans is cagey about disclosing his age, something his students are trying to uncover.
“They can’t figure it out,” he said. “You know how many Robert Evans’s you’ll find if you try to Google me? If they figure it out I’m not going to deny it.”