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The Providence effect: West Side school saves lives

    The office was cavernous and dark with couches and chairs spread around the room. Books and papers littered every surface. Shelves on the left wall held more books and dozens of framed pictures were crammed together in every remaining space. In them, Paul J. Adams III is pictured with past students, his children, and Oprah Winfrey. Photos of President Barack Obama were interspersed in between. As the president of Providence St. Mel School, Mr. Adams is a tall, well-dressed, wise-looking man who seems to have been through it all.  Indeed Providence St. Mel is a school that has fought through tough times, and won.
“There are thousands and thousands and thousands of schools that only exist in a structure,” Mr. Adams said. “We rock the boat.”
              Located in the West Side’s Garfield Park, violence and crime lie right outside the doors of this K-12 grade school. But inside the walls of this dedicated and in some ways revolutionary establishment, the students are hard-working, bright-eyed, respectful kids who plan to make something of themselves with the help of the noble educators that surround them.
             “We work for them,” Mr. Adams said. “It’s a push-up theory.”
Adams must be on the right track, judging from the school’s success over the past two decades. In that time, the school has held onto a 100 percent college acceptance rate to four-year colleges and universities.
It is a standard Adams and the school’s administration urges every student at Providence St. Mel to aspire to.
Situated in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, a place where crime, gangs, violence and drugs claim many young black men and women, Providence St. Mel seems to be an oasis in the midst of what some say is a barren land. Education is the golden carrot that it presents to young men and women seeking a way up from poverty a way to escape becoming a statistic. By all accounts, it is a school that works, the kind that offers hope and a lifeline, even for those growing up in some of the city’s most hopeless neighborhoods.
            To discover Providence St. Mel’s secret to success, one need only visit the school. It quickly becomes clear that for all involved here, there is no secret, only hard work and expectation.
Adams said to motivate students they must set the bar high and challenge them daily.
Challenging the students with work is not the only way the school achieves excellence. Both Adams and the thin, blond principal, Jeanette DiBella, describe the teachers as a cut above the rest.
“We hire people who are smarter than we are,” DiBella said.
“You can’t work here unless you buy into the philosophy,” Adams added.
Inside classrooms, students barely glance up from their work, despite the presence of a visitor, as they take ACT prep tests, math quizzes and read assigned books. In another class, third graders make shadow puppets in art class while upstairs a few students receive extra help in biology. Every teacher keeps order as they immerse the students in information and knowledge.
“Teaching is one of the most honorary jobs in the world,” Adams said. “I take it as a personal responsibility.”
             That sense of responsibility does not just lie with the educators but also students, said DiBella.
The school is private so there are substantial tuition costs, but DiBella said this is essential for the students. No one goes to Providence St. Mel for free.
“Everyone will pay something,” she said. “You have to invest something in your future.”
The students are indeed aware of the costs of tuition.
“I almost started crying when I thought I had to leave,” said bright-eyed, eighth-grader Jessica Bailey, 13. “My mom couldn’t afford it anymore but then I got a scholarship,” she said, smiling. Jessica said she loves the school like it is home.
Paying tuition is one of the things that helps students remain motivated. The continued need for finances keeps the school’s administrators motivated to seek funds—a minimum of $3.5 million annually.
“We look for investors, and they look for a return on their investment,” Mr. Adams said. The students are the return, he said, and when they are well educated, they ensure a better future.
Junior Latrionna Moore, 16, is one of those students.
In the hallway outside her classroom recently, she said, “I want to be a doctor, maybe own my own hospital; be an entrepreneur.”
After school, she tutors, plays softball, and participates in the Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering program, which helps students excel at math and science. After school programs are encouraged at Providence St. Mel so that students can continue to learn outside the classroom and stay off the streets.
Providence St. Mel is primarily African American, but DiBella said they are segregated mostly by their location. Being one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago, Garfield Park lies in one of the city’s historically most deadly police districts, and students are forced to make tough choices every day.
Asked what he says to kids who get mixed up with gangs, drugs and crime, Adams said he tells them, “Don’t. If you do, you’re gone.”
The school has a no-tolerance policy.
 “You make a choice,” Adams said. “You can’t mix them.”
              Besides the school’s policies on violence and drugs, it also has a plan to help students who are suffering academically. When a student’s GPA falls below a 2.0, they enter the after-school intervention program and receive tutoring to help them get back on track, DiBella said.
“We work with them as much as we can,” DiBella said.
Failing grades are always addressed but students who excel are given equal attention.
 “It’s a challenge for me,” said Shang Sharpe, a 17-year-old junior. “At my other school I was always the first one done, then I would just sit and talk. Now I go to a higher level.”
While Sharpe is an example of a student who learned to succeed, not all students take to the school right away.
 In the fourth floor hallway, freshman Arshad Williams said the school is “pretty good” and he likes Providence St. Mel better than his last school.
“The workload is... a lot,” he said, adding that he has an interest in Journalism and may join the school paper next year.
              Adams said the importance of the school is not only to educate young people, but to make them realize “they need to reach back and lift up,” adding that he sits on the shoulders of the people and teachers of his past. Adams hopes that some of his students will come back home to help revitalize the neighborhood with their knowledge and abilities.
“You are not going to know where you’re going unless you know where you came from,” he said.
Adams is certain that his students are the key to a better future, and that their success at Providence St. Mel is only the beginning. Stating the school’s mantra, DiBella said, “You can, you must, and you will succeed.
By Kira Stiers

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