School Choice in Action: Gesu School

Drive down 76, 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 seen more prosperous times. Blighted property. Graffiti. Shoes hanging from power lines.

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

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

One hundred percent of Gesu students qualify for free or reduced lunch. A third of their families has annual incomes of less than $30,000, and half come from single-parent households. If not for Gesu, most of these students would attend the poorest-performing public schools in Pennsylvania. For these students, a Gesu education means an opportunity to change their generational trajectory.

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 what I’d encounter.

Keynote speaker Steve Pemberton was first to take the podium. Pemberton’s incredible and 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.”

Then, a 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 had on his life.

Pemberton’s story of forbidden knowledge and the power of learning resonates with Gesu students. One of them described it this way: “I know the feeling when people don’t believe in what you can do. There were so many parts of his story that touched me.”

We want to grow them spiritually as well as academically; grow them in character. Make sure that when they leave, they’re on the path to break the cycle of poverty.

Gesu Principal Bryan Carter

Gesu Principal Bryan Carter spoke next. He talked about Gesu’s educational mission: to provide their 450 students “an innovative education” so they can become better citizens. “We want to grow them spiritually as well as academically; grow them in character. Make sure that when they leave, they’re on the path to break the cycle of poverty.”

As President and CEO, Bryan Carter fosters a culture of hard work at the school. “They learn the value of working hard and doing something hard…what are you going to do when the school work gets hard? What are you going to do when life gets hard? It’s good to make it difficult on the kids. Ultimately, the children come to value hard work and recognize that they were successful due to working hard.”

And the key, he says, is finding the right faculty. He introduced Annette Pickett, who is well-known among the Gesu community as the hardest social studies and science teacher, to discuss teachers’ motivation and practices. “My motivation,” she explained, “is paying it forward. My education was through the Catholic school system.”

Mrs. Pickett’s mission as a teacher is to show children that “learning is a lifelong experience,” and that “they’re empowered to do anything they want to do,” once they embark on the path of continual discovery. “The learning doesn’t stop after they put the uniforms away.” Mrs. Pickett certainly practices what she preaches, teaching classes during the day and studying for her doctorate at night.

The longtime educator recounts with pride how all her students come back to visit, despite their initial complaints. “When they’re here they tell me I’m too hard, that they’ll never come back. They never want to see me again. They want to drop out. Then they all—kicking down the door—come back the next year and hug me and kiss me.”

The spirit of hard work guides Gesu’s educational philosophy. And it stands to reason; the harder the kids work in eighth grade, the more prepared they’ll be for high school and beyond.

And judging by the students I met, it’s clear that Gesu students are on course to change the world. Alphonso and Makayla are the president and treasurer of their eighth-grade student council. They know where they want to go to high school, where they want to go to college, and what their career goals are. On Tuesdays they tutor kindergarteners and 4th graders in math and other subjects.

Alphonso’s favorite class is advanced writing. He’s an avid reader, most recently enjoying Nightjohn and Sarny by Gary Paulsen, a fictional account of an 1850s slave who learns to read and survive on the plantation. Just as both students were drawn to Steve Pemberton’s childhood account, Alphonso and Makayla each found Paulsen’s tale of forbidden knowledge compelling.

Alphonso has applied to eight high schools (four of which he wouldn’t know about if not for Gesu), but hopes to attend The Haverford School for boys next year. After that, he plans to attend college and start his own practice as a large animal veterinarian.

Go and discover the world because it is bigger than North Philadelphia. Discover that knowledge and bring it back into the community.

Makayla, a Gesu student

Makayla’s favorite class is advanced math. She enjoys approaching problems from different perspectives. For a recent project, Makayla created an oversized Rubik’s Cube. Makayla has two siblings, a brother in sixth grade and a sister in college. When asked what a Gesu education means to her, Makayla responds, “Gesu makes me grow more than I expected. I have an advantage going into high school that other kids don’t.”

Makayla hopes to attend Archbishop Carroll High School next year. After that, she’ll “probably” attend St. Joseph’s University and teach students with special needs. Makayla feels it will be important for her to leave Philadelphia one day and return with newfound knowledge. “I say it all the time. Go and discover the world because it is bigger than North Philadelphia. Discover that knowledge and bring it back into the community.”

These kids are thriving. Gesu has made a world of difference in their lives.

Tragically, not all North Philly kids have the same educational opportunities as Alphonso and Makayla. Gesu doesn’t have the space to accommodate all who apply, so the school is forced to maintain a waitlist each year.

Last year alone, nearly 53,000 tax credit scholarship applications were rejected statewide due to program limits. And the problem is worse in urban areas where students have the greatest need. Students belong in the school of their dreams, not on a waitlist. Let’s raise the limits on these programs, so all Pennsylvania students can thrive, dream, and have the best chance of a happy life.

Read more of Marc's account at Gesu School:
Gesu School: Education Choice in Action – Part I
Gesu School: Education Choice in Action – Part II
Gesu School: Education Choice in Action – Part III