41 years of opening her arms to students

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Principal Bridgid Miller addresses students during an assembly at St. Malachy School, 2252 W. Washington Blvd., on Nov. 11, 2018. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Renee Mandeldove first met Bridgid Miller in 1980, when she moved her four oldest children to St. Malachy School, 2252 W. Washington Blvd.

Miller was a young principal, having only been in the position for two years. But she embraced Mandeldove’s family, Mandeldove said.

“My kids were coming from a really rough situation, and I didn’t have much money or a job,” said Mandeldove, now the school’s activities director. “She opened her arms to us.”

Those four children now are a school principal, a special education teacher, a massage therapist and supervisor of salespeople at a large Chicago new car dealership, Mandeldove said. As they have grown, Miller has continued opening her arms — and the school doors — to children and families who are need of a safe place and a sound education, including five foster and adopted children Mandeldove took in.

“We have become kind of a family school,” said Miller, now in her 41st year as principal. “We have parents who graduated bringing their children here, sometimes parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.”

One day, Miller said, 18 students were out of class to attend the same family funeral.

Family connections brought Gini Stanton to St. Malachy when her oldest daughter, now 20, was ready for preschool.

“The neighborhood we were living in was kind of rough,” Stanton said, “and I had a cousin who was at St. Malachy and she liked it.”

Although her oldest daughter has long since graduated and the family has moved to the western suburbs, Stanton still has a son in eighth grade and a daughter in second grade at St. Malachy. Her youngest daughter will start preschool there in the fall.

That continuity means the school has a similar demographic profile to what it had when Miller arrived in 1978, eight years of teaching under her belt and working on her school administrator credentials. Then, the school was in the shadow of the Henry Horner Homes and Rockwell Gardens, large public housing complexes, and sat across the street from a CPS school with more than 800 students.

The public housing has been demolished and the public school closed, but St. Malachy has 225 students. When she arrived, Miller said, there were fewer than 200 students in the school. Despite the new housing stock in the neighborhood and gentrification creeping closer, 97 percent of the students come from low-income families.

Miller said the school makes it work with help from the archdiocese; the Big Shoulders Fund; the Sisters of Mercy, who originally staffed the school; and an ongoing partnership with Holy Cross Parish in Deerfield, where parishioners commit to paying half the tuition for individual St. Malachy students or families.

“Almost all of my families have a family who is matching tuition,” she said.

Mandeldove said Miller didn’t just take her kids in; she brought Mandeldove in first as a volunteer gym teacher and then as an aide and activities instructor and director.

“She hires people from the community,” Mandeldove said. “I know there are people she’s hired who never had a job before. But she gives them a chance.”

“We have always had open doors and open arms,” Miller said. “Our mission is a collaboration of love between home and school, and families choose us for the family feel and for the education.”

Miller said she came to St. Malachy after five years teaching eighth-grade at St. Barnabas because the new pastor at St. Malachy, Father Stephan Mangan, who was transferred from St. Barnabas, asked her to.

“He was looking for a principal, and it wasn’t really on my radar,” Miller said. “But he said he thought I’d be up to it.”

The principal at St. Barnabas agreed and released Miller from her teaching contract, so she took the job.

“I just loved it,” said Miller, adding that she grew into the position. “I just fell in love with the place and decided this was my calling.”

Even though the tuition at the time was very low, Miller said, most families from the community couldn’t afford it.

“We just asked people, ‘What can you pay?’” Miller said. At the same time, she added preschool classes with the help of a grant from the Sisters of Mercy to bring young families in. That stabilized enrollment in the primary grades.

At one time, the school reached its capacity of 275 students, Miller said, but class sizes got too large.

Now the school’s largest class is about 27 students.

“Our kids come in with lots of things,” Miller said. “They need individual attention.”

That’s one thing parents new to the school often comment on.

“They always say they’ve never been in a school where the teacher was so interested in their child,” Miller said. “They’ll say, ‘She’s been to two other schools, and we never felt like they liked her.’”

That level of concern makes it possible for the school to work with families, whether on academics or discipline.

Mandeldove said she remembers when her oldest was in fifth or sixth grade, and the teacher called her to explain that she was in danger of being held back because she wasn’t reading as well as she could.

“When she heard that, she buckled down,” Mandeldove said. “I was a young mother, and I didn’t know what she should be doing.”

Her daughter ended up being promoted with her class; she’s the one who is now a school principal.

Stanton also is pleased with the academic success of her children. Her oldest received a Link scholarship, graduated from Holy Trinity High School and is studying to be a nurse practitioner at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois. Her eighth-grade son has received a Daniel Murphy scholarship and hopes to attend Fenwick High School in Oak Park next year.

“Ms. Miller has devoted her life to the school,” Stanton said. “Even more, she has devoted her life to these families.”

That held true when Stanton lost her job after the company she worked for was sold two years ago, and she planned to pull the kids out of St. Malachy. Miller, she said, made sure her son got a scholarship from the Big Shoulders Fund and found a sponsor to pick up the rest of what she could not pay.

Miller said principals have had a lot added to their plates over the years, and worrying over money is “amazingly horrible.” Still, she’s gotten better at delegating, she said.

But it’s better than when she first arrived and resources were so slim that students had to share not only books but workbooks.

“I’ve always believed our students should have the best of everything,” Miller said. Grants have helped pay for Smartboards in classrooms and tablets and Chromebooks for students to use.

“We’ve really gone from whole-group instruction to small-group instruction to almost individual instruction, especially in the upper grades,” she said.

The students have changed in some ways, Miller said. By and large, they are more motivated and self-directed than they once were, especially those in the upper grades. Conversely, younger children seem to have more trouble getting along with their peers.

“They don’t have the same collaborative skills,” she said. “They do a lot of things by themselves.”

Still, their parents are more educated than many of the parents of students from 40 years ago, Miller said, and St. Malachy graduates have gone on to high schools such as Fenwick and De La Salle Academy. She said she can’t see ever leaving the school entirely.

“I tell the people who support us, from Holy Cross and Big Shoulders and other places, that they do the important work,” she said. “We get all the rewards.”


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