San Miguel School to close Gary Comer Campus after 10 years

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, March 11, 2012

Parents and students at San Miguel School Chicago’s Gary Comer Campus, 819 N. Leamington Ave., learned March 1 that the school will close its doors at the end of the school year.

San Miguel’s Back of the Yards Campus, 1949 W. 48th St., will remain open.

The Gary Comer Campus will close due to the lack of funding needed to support both of San Miguel’s middle school campuses. The challenging economic environment has impacted all charitable fundraising efforts, and the organization was unable to raise the necessary funds, said Mike Anderer-McClelland, president and executive director of San Miguel School Chicago.

“This was a painful and difficult decision,” he said. “In the past two years, our leadership worked diligently to prevent the loss of this community asset.”

The organization decreased overall operating expenses by $1.1 million, increased funding by 17 percent last fiscal year, and sought major donors or partners to ensure the long-term sustainability of the campus.

The Gary Comer Campus opened in 2002 with start up funding for the first 10 years, said Phillip Jimenez, San Miguel’s vice president for advancement. After that money ran out this year, there was no way to fill the gap, he said.

San Miguel is sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers of the Midwest District, which approved the resolution now in order to allow students to find new schools and staff to secure other employment.

When Anderer-McClelland made the announcement, there were representatives from the Office for Catholic Schools and the Big Shoulders Fund on hand to offer assistance. San Miguel officials also are in communication with area charter schools, including Catalyst’s Circle Rock Campus, which is also sponsored by the Christian Brothers.

Of the 61 students at the Gary Comer campus this year, 26 are eighth-graders who are well on their way to finding high school placements for next year. San Miguel will continue to offer them some support into the future — in negotiating issues with their high schools, for example, or helping to find a new high school if that becomes necessary. But the after-school and weekend programs offered to previous graduates will not be available.

The 35 sixth- and seventh-graders will be sent back out into a community that did not provide them with an adequate education before arriving at San Miguel.

The school’s mission is to provide an innovative and accessible education to children most in need — academically underachieving students from low income families. San Miguel Chicago students improve as much as two reading grade levels within the first six months at the school, and graduate from eighth grade with the academic skills necessary to excel in high school.

“I think there was some real fear and concern about the lack of quality educational choices in the neighborhood,” Anderer-McClelland said.

“Parents want the best possible educational environment for their children. Their children, prior to coming to San Miguel, were sort of cheated by the educational system.”

San Miguel is not tuition-driven like most private schools. Families pay what they can, so the school relies on private donors, corporations and foundations for more than 90 percent of its operating budget. This is consistent with all San Miguel schools across the country.

But with the Gary Comer Campus’ start-up funding ending, and a lasting economic downturn, funding wasn’t available.

“We met with many potential donors and showed them what they did, and they would say ‘yes, but we can’t do everything you are asking in this environment,’” Jimenez said.

Anderer-McClelland said he suggested that families look into St. Angela School, also in the Austin neighborhood at 1332 N. Massasoit; as well as St. Malachy School, a bit further east at 2252 W. Washington Blvd.; and St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy School, a bit further west at 27 W. Washington in Oak Park.

Anderer-McClelland said that the problem of a lack of educational resources in poor neighborhoods is a complex issue that will require a complex answer, including neighborhood public schools, charter schools, private schools and options like San Miguel for students that did not succeed in a more traditional school environment.

“We were able to provide that without the financial obstacle that families face at private schools because of our partnership with private donors,” Anderer-McClelland said.