A Model School: How Philadelphia’s Gesu School is Remaking Inner-City Education by Jerrold K. Footlick, 227 pages. Philadelphia: Villiger Press, 2004. $20.
When the parish of the Church of the Gesu closed in 1993, a casualty of changing demographics in the working-class north Philadelphia neighborhood it had served for decades, few people imagined the event would spark a renewal of Catholic education in the area. But as veteran education writer Jerrold Footlick recounts in this inspiring book, Gesu School has prospered during the last decade. As an independent Catholic elementary school—run by the Jesuits and the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, staffed by lay faculty, and serving a mostly non-Catholic, African-American student body—it has attracted national attention and more than a few high-profile board members, including Tim Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, and Time magazine columnist Joe Klein.
The beginning of the school’s rebirth, Footlick writes, occurred in 1991, when George W. Bur, S.J., then pastor of Gesu parish, reunited with a fellow graduate of nearby St. Joseph’s Prep School, venture capitalist and Fordham University Trustee Winston Churchill (FCRH ’62). A former Rhodes Scholar who “knows what it is like not to have a lot of money…and what education can do for an ambitious young person,” Churchill soon decided to help Gesu raise financial and community support. “To identify Win Churchill simply as chairman of the board [of Gesu School] is like saying Willie Mays was a baseball player,” writes Footlick. “But for his enthusiasm and his understanding of the school’s needs and how to fulfill them, Gesu would not have succeeded, perhaps would not exist.”
Footlick highlights the school’s innovative programs, including peer-mediation training for fifth- through eighth-graders, and single-gender education for third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students—an initiative designed to foster students’ confidence and self-esteem. But he focuses mainly on the people at Gesu—the teachers, administrators, trustees and alumni dedicated to a school devoted to “preparing the ‘full person’ who can provide ‘full service’ to others.” That devotion to addressing students’ social, academic and religious needs has made Gesu a success, according to Footlick, a “school to inspire other faithful people in other places to create something similar.”