A Startling Transformation

Story by Debra Holtz

Two innovative Lasallian schools in Chicago are transforming the lives of inner-city youth. Saint Mary's students and alumni who volunteered at the schools have found their own lives taking new directions as a result.

Founded a decade ago by two Christian Brothers and a lay couple devoted to social justice, the San Miguel Schools in Chicago take low-achieving youngsters from disadvantaged homes and place them in some of the city's best high schools. Their approach is simple yet effective: a nurturing environment, low student-teacher ratios, long periods of reading, after-school activities, and mandatory parental involvement.

Dedicated volunteers from across the country, many of them from Saint Mary's, have also played a big role in this success story.

"I can't tell you how much we have benefited from our relationship with Saint Mary's College, with the interns who come out for a month and with those who become Lasallian Volunteers," says San Miguel Schools co-founder Brother Edmund Siderewicz. "It's a win-win situation. The relationships they develop with the kids are priceless. It impacts both lives. They come to be of service, but I've heard them say so many times; ‘I've taken away so much more than I've given here.' "

That describes the experience of Jenise Phelps, 21, one of seven Saint Mary's students who volunteered at the Chicago schools during this year's January Term as a Christian Service intern. Before teaching sixth-graders at San Miguel, Phelps had planned to work as a research assistant in a biotech lab next year to save up money for medical school.

"I feel like I'm called to do something else now," says Phelps, who is considering becoming a Lasallian Volunteer when she graduates this spring.

The Saint Mary's Christian Service Internship has been called a "farm team" for the Lasallian Volunteer program. More than a quarter of volunteers nationwide come from Saint Mary's College, and most of them previously served as Christian Service interns.

Brother Michael Avila, who has run the internship program since 1987, says he has witnessed many students change their majors and even their career aspirations as a result of their Jan Term service.

"I think the thing that inspires them is when they get to the site and see that they can make a difference for these kids at risk," he says. "They become attached to these children, and it really turns their own lives around."


Changing the world, one student at a time

Like a similar alternative school founded in 1993 in Providence, R.I., the Chicago schools were named in honor of Miguel Febres Cordero, the first native of Ecuador to become a Christian Brother.

The first San Miguel school in Chicago opened in 1995 in the largely Hispanic Back of the Yards neighborhood, an area named for the former Chicago Stockyards on the city's south side and home a generation ago to Irish and Polish blue-collar workers. The residential area is now dotted with Mexican butcher shops, bakeries, and restaurants.

San Miguel's Back of the Yards Campus enrolls middle-schoolers of low-income immigrant families who are lagging behind academically and in danger of succumbing to the surrounding culture of gangs and drugs. The school is housed on the third floor of an old, vacated parish high school. To reach their classrooms each day, the students, dressed in identical uniforms, climb 68 steps and are met near the top by a large mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe, painted by a local artist.

The educational model of rigorous academics and community involvement proved so successful that a second San Miguel school in Chicago was opened in 2002 to serve the African-American community in a run-down neighborhood on the city's west side. Housed in a renovated two-story brick building, the school was named the Gary Comer Campus after its lead benefactor, the founder of Lands End, Inc.

The school is "a first step towards breaking the educational barrier that perpetuates the cycle of poverty," Comer told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004. He pointed out that the average lifetime cost of jailing someone is $1.7 million to $2.3 million. "If I put $1 million into that school and save one kid, I've doubled my investment," he said.


Walking in their shoes

Carrie Kiskila '96 was inspired to become a Lasallian Volunteer during her sophomore year at Saint Mary's when she read an article about the program by J.D. Lanigan '93 in the Collegian. After graduation, Kiskila went to San Miguel's Back of the Yards school as a volunteer. Originally intending to stay for one year, she remained for five.

"I never bought a winter coat," recalls Kiskila of her time in Chicago. "Each year, I figured it would be only one more year."

What kept her at San Miguel?

"I really loved the people I worked with and I loved the kids," says Kiskila.

It wasn't an easy job, though. Kiskila arrived at San Miguel with no teaching experience, and the kids presented educational as well as emotional challenges. At night, she often found herself crying, wondering how she was going to last there.

"It was definitely hard," recalls Kiskila. "I was definitely an outsider coming in and the kids saw us as that—as volunteers coming in. There was a lot of testing of the waters:Would we stick with them or would we give up on them?"

The children who attend San Miguel come from some of Chicago's most troubled neighborhoods. Both schools are in congressional districts with the highest high school dropout rates in Illinois. On top of that, most of the students are reading at a second- or third-grade reading level when they enter sixth grade. They often try the patience of the volunteers but, step by step, the teachers learn what it's like to walk in their students' shoes.

"Some of my favorites were the worst-behaved kids," says Kiskila, who, like many of the teachers at San Miguel, literally put herself in the line of gunfire to accompany students on their neighborhood streets.

Brother Edmund says Kiskila used her heart as well as her intelligence to connect with the children.

San Miguel Chicago Schools At A Glance
  • The Back of the Yards Campus, opened in 1995, serves 78 students in grades 6-8. The school also provides after-school tutoring and scholarship support to 93 school students.

  • The Gary Comer Campus, opened in 2002, enrolls 110 students in grades 5-8.

  • Plans are underway to open a charter school later this year and another in 2007, in conjunction with Chicago Public Schools.

  • The Chicago Schools are part of a growing network of 15 San Miguel schools nationwide.

  • For more information, see sanmiguelchicago.org or order The Schools that Faith Built by Terence McLaughlin, FSC (available for $6).

"Carrie has a ferocious spirit of dedication, compassion, and commitment," says Brother Edmund. "Something in the San Miguel mission clicked with her, and she wasn't going to let these kids fail."

Kiskila's last three years at San Miguel were spent ushering the same group of students from sixth through eighth grade. When they graduated, she left San Miguel to attend graduate school at Harvard University, where she earned a master's in education.

The San Miguel experience made such an impression on her, though, that she returned to the Bay Area to teach at DeMarillac Middle School, a San Miguel-type school in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood run by the Christian Brothers and the Daughters of Charity.

"I love Lasallian education," says Kiskila. "I love the tradition of it, that as a teacher you have to meet the needs of the kids, and not just academically. If they're not getting breakfast at home, then you meet that need. It's an all-around education."

Saint Mary's Christian Service interns say they were stunned at first by the behavior and even the hygiene habits of some of the San Miguel students, but quickly learned to understand why.

"I would get frustrated when the students acted out at their teachers and didn't take direction," says senior Sandra Sanchez.

Sanchez talked to the teachers and learned about the kinds of issues the students faced at home. Two students in her class had lost siblings, one in a gang-related murder and the other in a fire.

"I had considered teaching, but now I want to be a guidance counselor in high school after seeing how these kids have so much potential and how easy it is for them to get sidetracked by gangs and drugs," Sanchez says. First, she hopes to serve as a Lasallian Volunteer so she can continue her work as a mentor and role model in the Latino community.

Many of this year's Jan Term interns say they were worried about the cold weather and dangerous neighborhoods awaiting them in Chicago. They quickly grew accustomed to walking down the streets in pairs, and being awakened by the sound of gunshots and police sirens.

Nevertheless, sophomore Jose Cano says he returned to Saint Mary's "more focused and happy" after his time there.

"It made me find myself in a way," said Cano, who says he struggled academically and lost touch with his desire to perform volunteer work during his freshman year at SMC. "Going to Chicago opened me up to see my capabilities."

Cano focused on one boy named Miguel who was behind in reading, resistant to his teachers, and teased by the other children because he is overweight.

"I showed him empathy because I used to be a fat kid," says Cano. "I told him how people made fun of me in sixth grade. I really got him to open up to me and work with me."

One of the projects they worked on was an assignment to list 100 goals that Miguel had for his lifetime. Miguel slowly opened up to Cano. Among his hopes: to pass the sixth grade and to go out to the movies with his mother.

"You could tell that his mother wasn't around very much because she was working all of the time," Cano says. "I've always cherished my Mom and Dad. These kids don't have that. Many of their parents are absent or single parents."

Cano, who had other plans for Jan Term, changed his mind when Brother Michael recruited him because San Miguel needed a bilingual male role model for the children at Back of the Yards.

"The experience made me realize that the struggle these kids have come from their living conditions," says Cano. "Now I look at how far I've come. I appreciate being at Saint Mary's more now. I spend more time on my homework and I prioritize more. It really got me in touch with myself."


Living in Community

Jose Cano with two students at San Miguel

Working with the students is not the only part of the San Miguel experience that has an impact on the volunteers. They also live in community with the Brothers and other lay volunteers. At Back of the Yards, the volunteers reside in a four-story converted convent where they share meals and camaraderie.

"Throughout the month, as much as I taught, I was taught so much more," wrote sophomore Jennifer Agis in an essay for her Christian Service Internship. "Interacting with a group of individuals who care so much for the students and who truly believe in their potential really showed me that we have the ability to make a difference."

Brother Michael sees the same enthusiasm in his volunteers that he once saw in young Brothers. "The brotherhood is being renewed, but in a different way," he says. "Where there used to be six Brothers and two volunteers on sites, now that's reversed."

When the Christian Service Internship "dropped in his lap" nearly 20 years ago, Brother Michael found himself begging organizations to take his Jan Term volunteers for such a brief time. He even thought about canceling the course and teaching one on Don Quixote instead. But he persevered, and now has more volunteer opportunities than students to fill them.

"I never got to teach the course on Don Quixote, but I feel like I'm sending out all of these Don Quixotes into the world, who are tilting against windmills," says Brother Michael.

Brother Edmund Siderewicz, FSC, co-founder of the San Miguel Schools in Chicago, was chosen to receive an honorary doctorate in educational leadership at Saint Mary's College's 2006 Convocation on April 25.


In a citation honoring Brother Edmund, Saint Mary's President Brother Ronald Gallagher noted his "dedicated service to making a difference in the lives of students who face daunting challenges."

Brother Edmund and his Lasallian partners began Chicago's San Miguel Schools more than a decade ago with an ambitious dream to take disadvantaged children who are floundering in public schools and help them to flourish.

Born in 1995 in the dining room of the Brother's community house on Chicago's south side, the San Miguel Schools now teach nearly 200 at-risk youth on two campuses in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods. The schools' success has been remarkable, taking students who enter with very low reading levels and sending them on to some of Chicago's finest high schools three years later. Brother Edmund is now developing a third San Miguel School in Chicago, a pilot charter school.

Before his work in Chicago, Brother Edmund spent eight years in Guatemala, where he taught villagers and developed a high school for Mayan education.

"Something in my heart told me there was a reason to come home," reflects Brother Edmund. "I think God used that to put me here."