GARFIELD PARK-Paul Adams’s office is a virtual museum of Providence St. Mel history.
Photos of past students who’ve graduated from Harvard and other Ivy-League schools sit atop a credenza. Pictures of Oprah Winfrey and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan with Adams, who’s been with St. Mel for 40 years, line the hallways.
Leaning against a wall is a poster board filled with photos of newspapers ads the school ran in the 1970s, part of a campaign to thwart the Archdiocese of Chicago’s plans to close the school. The Archdiocese targeted St. Mel for closure, a move that prompted Adams, the school’s longtime leader, to fight to keep it open.
The campaign, which Adams spearheaded, garnered national media attention. St. Mel garnered a reputation as “The school that refused to die.” Now, the West Garfield Park school teaches pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Located at 119 S. Central Park, Providence St. Mel may seem like an apparition. The school sits in the heart of an impoverished West Side neighborhood, but is seemingly beating the odds. And its supporters credit Adams’s sheer tenacity to give students a good education as the reason for St. Mel’s success. Adams is marking his 40th year at St. Mel-that tenacity is something his parents pressed upon him growing up in rural Alabama.
“My family had a strong belief in education being the baseline for whatever you are going to do,” he said. “I am only passing on what was passed onto to me. People make a big deal that (I’m) doing all of this. I am supposed to be doing this. We should all be doing it. If this is an anomaly then what are schools supposed to be doing. So that is kind of embarrassing to me.”
For Adams, the school’s president, Providence St. Mel’s success is not an anomaly-it’s one of simple common sense.
The real story of Providence St. Mel is the academic success of its students. Unlike other inner city public high schools, 100 percent of the St. Mel’s senior class graduate and are accepted into four-year colleges and universities. Half of those students attend top tier or Ivy-League schools..
And ideally, good high schools that have strong academic programs produce college-ready students. Adams understood that when he became St. Mel’s principal in 1972, a job he first didn’t want-an uncle convinced him otherwise.
A ‘place of chaos’
When Adams first came to Providence St. Mel as a guidance counselor in 1971, he said the school was a “place in chaos.” But Adams sensed the school’s potential.
“There was just something that felt good about it,” Adams recalled. “That was the nudge I needed, because I really had no intention of taking the job for $15,000. Sometimes things are providential.”
Adams began to revamp the curriculum offering more college-level classes for junior and seniors. He started offering high school courses such as biology at the elementary grade level. Adams also began bringing in a better crop of teachers, getting rid of bad apples.
“The key to great schools are great teachers,” he explained, noting that St. Mel has four teachers with PhDs. “You don’t have great teachers-you are going to have a lousy school.”
Adams implemented a strict discipline code, a page he borrowed from his childhood school in Brewton Ala. The school, Adams noted, had a Code of Conduct students had to follow, not only in class but on campus and around town.
“The discipline was ‘you better not,'” Adams said. “They will probably tell you once. They wouldn’t tell you twice. They would send you home. That’s, basically, how this school operates.”
For learning to take place, he insists a certain atmosphere must exist. Within a year, the school turned around.
“The increase in scores was almost immediate, but they weren’t giant steps,” Adams said. “We had students in the single digits in ACT scores in the early ’70s.”
Forty years later, the average ACT score is near 24, but Adams hopes to raise that to 28 within a couple of years. The objective, he said, is to make sure children go to the next level, and that is to go to college.
“Basically, if you don’t want to go to college don’t come here.”
‘It’s no magic here-it’s all hard work.”
As St. Mel’s academic rigors increased, Adams encountered a reversal of fortune during his early years as principal-the school saw a 60-percent dropout rate.
“We saw that students were dropping out because they weren’t academically prepared. So my answer was to get them ready for high school,” Adams said.
Originally a high school only, St. Mel soon added eighth and seventh grades in 1980. Seven years later, the school added fifth and sixth grades, followed by kindergarten and pre-kindergarten. St. Mel is now reaching further into the cradle to begin a program for kids as young as 3.
Adams believes that reaching children early secures the best chance to succeed academically. Providence St. Mel senior Njeri Williams can attest to that.
Williams has attended the school since the third grade. She believes starting so young has prepared her for both high school and college.
Even a three-week stint to Paris and Montpellier, France studying international law seemed like easy course work for Williams, who aspires to attend Bates College. Her trip to France was part of St. Mel’s Study Abroad Program. She also studied at Brown University in philosophy.
“I was keeping up with the work,” she said. “If this is what college is going to be like, I am going to be good in college.”
Senior Latrionna Moore credits her success to the school’s high academic standards. She said the teachers push students to go beyond what they can do. The 17-year-old, who wants to be a doctor, has a 4.0 GPA and is eyeing Stanford University next fall; she plans to study political science with an emphasis in pre-law.
“I don’t think I would be in the same place without being at Providence St. Mel,” Moore said.
Adams turned the principal’s job over to Jeanette DiBella in 2000. For all the school’s success, Adams does have some regrets. He wished he could have done some things better.
“What I think about often are the kids that left who didn’t finish. What could be we have done differently?” he said. “If people sent their children here because they think we got some magic, it’s no magic here. It’s all hard work.”