Gesu School: Education Choice in Action – Part I

Drive down Schuylkill Expressway, exit 342 past the Philadelphia Zoo, across the Girard Bridge—eventually you’ll arrive in North Philly, home of Gesu School. The surrounding neighborhood has all the earmarks of a place that's seen more prosperous times. Blighted property. Graffiti. Shoes hanging from power lines.

Philadelphia has a number of problems, including poverty and a lack of quality educational access for its residents, as PEW Charitable Trusts pointed out in September. In fact, Philadelphia was dubbed the “poorest of the country’s 10 major cities” following the latest Census Bureau release.

Gesu serves Pre-K – 8th grade students from some of Philly’s poorest neighborhoods. For kids trapped in the cycle of poverty, the school represents hope—a way out.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Gesu School for their 21st annual Symposium on Transforming Inner-City Education.

I wasn’t prepared for the stories of transformation I encountered.

First was keynote speaker, Steve Pemberton.

Pemberton's inspiring story centered on the heroes who intervened at crucial moments in his life. Orphaned at an early age and placed in foster care, Pemberton’s own caretakers wrote that he didn’t “have a chance in the world.”

When comparing his own story to the youth of today, Pemberton strongly emphasizes that kids have agency. They have the ability to achieve greatness if only kind adults will step in to help at an opportune moment.

Steve Pemberton and Reverend Stephen D. Thorne of Saint Martin de Porres Catholic Church. 
Photo credit: Edward Savaria

One of these adults, or everyday hero, intervened in Pemberton's life with profound effect. With physically and emotionally abusive foster parents who discouraged reading, Pemberton was forced to create a hidden library in his cellar. He had to indulge his love of reading covertly. In the dark. On the bus. At the park. A neighbor who observed his love of reading gifted books to young Steve after her own sons finished reading them. In a chance encounter, Pemberton met this same neighbor 35 years later and recounted to her the impact she'd had on his life.

Pemberton's story of forbidden knowledge and the power of learning resonates with the students, who we'll feature later in this series. One of them describes it this way: “His story is really about how growing up can be hard and challenging. I know the feeling of not having some people believe in what you can do. There were so many parts [of the story] that touched me.”

Pemberton's insatiable thirst for knowledge, combined with the influences of several everyday heroes, propelled his unlikely path to success. After escaping an intolerable foster home, Pemberton defied expectations by finishing high school near the top of his class and earning a scholarship to Boston College. But his ascent didn't stop there. He continued to defy the odds, becoming a high-profile executive for companies such as Globoforce, Walgreens Boots Alliance, and, writing a book, and inspiring a feature film.

According to Pemberton, everyday heroes “demonstrate humility, strength, courage, and perseverance” in difficult circumstances. Pemberton believes the faculty and staff at Gesu are providing a new generation their “chance in the world.”

In Part II we highlight the everyday heroes of the kids in North Philly—their educators.