The Garfield Park neighborhood is home not only to Providence St. Mel School but also to its founder, Paul Joseph Adams III, a community activist fighting to improve opportunities for youth on the West Side.

The nonprofit Leaders Network recently honored Adams for his lifetime work at Providence St. Mel and his community contributions.

“It was an enormously high honor for me to stand with the board of directors of the Leaders Network and present Mr. Paul Adams III with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Education Award,” said Rev. Ira Acre, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in North Lawndale and co-chairman for the Leaders Network, on a Facebook post. “Mr. Adams is a living legend and precious jewel serving on the West Side.”

But with all the accolades Adams often receives, both locally and nationally, the 77-year-old husband and father said all he wants to do is increase educational opportunities for youths, especially black youths.

“We have the power in this community to make changes in our lives, but for some reason we [blacks] get ‘comfortable’ with our situation and are reluctant to make changes,” said Adams, executive chairman of Providence St. Mel. “But from my point of view a quality education changes all of that.” 

One obstacle Adams said he runs into when recruiting students to Providence St. Mel are parents opting to send their children to charter schools. 

“Our competition is charter schools. Parents have told me they cannot afford a private school and prefer to send their students to public schools,” explained Adams. “I understand a lot of parents are struggling financially but it is so important that we preserve our future and that starts with educating the next generation of leaders.”

Providence St. Mel, 119 S. Central Park Ave., is an independent, private school with a current enrollment of 400 students, and serves grades kindergarten through 12th. The former Catholic school offers college preparatory classes, sports, clubs, and different programs including a summer international program.

The Archdiocese of Chicago previously operated Providence St. Mel, which was created in 1969 with the merger of Providence High School and St. Mel High School. In 1978, the Archdiocese announced it was closing the school during Adams’ tenure as principal. 

However, Adams refused to let the doors close and spearheaded a community campaign to raise money to operate the school independently. His effort was made possible after the Archdiocese donated the school’s campus to Adams. And during the 1980s, Providence St. Mel expanded to include elementary grades.

Annual tuition at Providence St. Mel is $8,000, but Jeanette Butala, president of the school, said the average family receives financial aid from the school and pays only $200 per month. But tuition payments do not make up it’s nearly $8 million a year budget.

“Only 15 percent of students pay the full tuition, which accounts for $1.8 million a year. The rest of the budget is made up with fundraising and private donations,” said Adams, who added the school’s capacity could hold 800 students. “My mother made sacrifices so I could attend a private school and I encourage all parents to do the same.”

Adams said that there students who attend the school who live as far away as suburban Naperville.

“There are students who live in Schaumburg, on the South Side and other far places that attend our school,” added Adams, who lives across the street from the school. “Providence St. Mel is a school whose students are predominately black and 88 percent of its teaching staff have advanced degrees.”

According to Adams, the school has had a 100 percent college acceptance rate since 1978, and 74 percent of its students graduate from college in four years opposed to the national average of 51 percent.

“Our students attend some of the best colleges and universities in the country like Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, and Howard University,” contends Adams, the oldest of four siblings. “Any student who graduates from here will be ready to succeed in life after college. We prepare our students to be leaders, thinkers and game-changers.”