By Nancy Thorner –
A great example in Chicago of how school choice works, and works well, is Leo Catholic High School, a private all-male, secondary parochial high school located at 7901 South Sangamon Street in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood of Chicago. Leo is home to a predominantly African–American student body, and the Chicago Archdiocese school is named in honor of Pope Leo XIII. Established in 1926 as the Congregation of Christian Brothers‘ first school in Chicago, Leo has educated thousands of boys from Chicago’s South Side and suburbs.
Student enrolled at Leo come from 26 different zip codes. Currently enrolled are several white students who live in the Canaryville section of Chicago, a largely Irish community on the South Side adjacent to Bridgeport. Leo’s current student body numbers 153 students with a full-time staff of 23.
Considering the success of Leo students who are guided by their school motto — “Deeds Not Words” — since 1926 Leo is where young men have learned to become leaders. Framed photos of successful alumni adorn the walls at Leo High School. Below are but a few of many successful Leo graduates:
- Tom Garrity (class of 1930), a general and head of Air Force Logistics Command during World War II.
- Coach Mike Joyce (class of 1986) an attorney who also manages boxing gyms.
- Kevin McCarthy, a Secret Service agent that took a bullet for President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
When touring Leo High School, a steep climb to the second floor revealed a most unusual site: a full-fledged boxing ring. Thanks to Mike Joyce, the Leo High School Boxing Club is the only on-campus high school boxing program in the city. Having graduated from Leo High School in 1986, Mike Joyce has served there as a volunteer coach since 1996. The Leo Boxing Program Coach started by Joyce has produced many Golden Glove Champions. A sign on the wall above the boxing ring displayed these words:
Leo High School Tour Reflections
There were many favorable impressions when touring Leo High School. Meeting our charter bus as it pulled up in front of Leo High School was the president of Leo Catholic High School, Dan McGrath, who in reflecting his great pride for Leo in its 89th year, cited this amazing statistic: There has been a 100% graduate rate for the past six years, with 94% of Leo students going on to college. Such was reflected on the orange and black sign (Leo school colors) located in front of the school. There are 27 students in this year’s graduating class. Behind the sign was a Veteran’s Memorial to honor the war dead, described as keeping in the proud military tradition of Leo High School. Likewise noted by McGrath was that St. Sabina Church was located just down the road from the high school.
During the course of the tour these facts were related about Leo High School:
- Educational experiences for Leo students include speakers of note and field trips.
- One-half of the individuals that work at Leo are Leo graduates.
- No student who wants a good education is turned away. Leo expects its students to succeed and to be the best they can be, as do parents who have a financial obligation.
- Leo’s tuition is $7,000 a year, but no one pays this amount. 50 hours of volunteer work by parents over the course of the school years will lower tuition down to $5,000. Alumni are also very generous, bringing the average tuition cost down to $4,000 per year. This is in contrast to $15,000 actual cost at Leo High School to educate one student. Based on 2014-15 published tuition rates, the average tuition of South Side Catholic Schools is $10,000.
- Leo does face competition from other charter schools. There are five in the 17th ward.
- Leo provides a rigorous college prep program. Although no direct subsidies are received from a religious institution (Leo does have a chapel), Leo benefit from the Big Shoulders Fund that supplies support to Catholic schools in the neediest areas of inner-city Chicago. Big Shoulders performs prep work free for Leo students.
- All teachers are non-union. Teachers remain at the school for a good while, consider it a calling, and are dedicated to helping students succeed. Teachers willingly stay after school to help students who fall behind.
- There is a very supportive and interested alumni, loyal and dedicated, who often show up at Leo unannounced. This year’s alumni banquet attracted 700 Leo grads and guests.
- Although the Leo high school building is structurally old and lacks the frills and attractiveness of school buildings located in more affluent areas, the structure is solid and was built to last. Upkeep and maintenance costs are therefore kept at a minimum.
Nancy Thorner on tour at Leo Catholic High School – photo by Mark Weyermuller
A pressing problem facing Leo High School is that it’s land-locked, making expansion of the campus difficult. With this in mind a small land acquisition is being considered, made difficult because most of the money raised goes for tuition. Active parents’ and alumni clubs contribute much to the school’s financial well-being. As to the gym on the 3rd floor, it needs to be replaced. And despite having won 7 state championships, Leo doesn’t even have a track to call its own.
When visiting the cafeteria, students were dressed in either a solid colored shirt and tie or wearing an orange Leo polar shirt which students must buy. Although informed initially that a tie and shirt was the dress code from October thought April, it was later stated that a tie and shirt could be worn anytime if a student chose to do so, even in September and May.
Students Display Future Success and Leadership Skills
My most favorable impressions of Leo were of the students themselves. The students assigned to be on hand to answer questions that might arise during the tour were polite, friendly, and well spoken. As to this question posed by Thorner to the school’s president, Dan McGrath, during the course of the tour, “Do students always communicate so well in standard English?” His response: “Although students might not do so when away from school, it is required of them when in school.”
It was also noticeable how all students held eye contact when spoken to or in responding. McGrath explained how eye contact does not come naturally to Leo students. This attribute acquires much work to achieve.
It is evident that a private charter school like Leo High School is educating young men who are ready and willing to make a difference in society. It amazed me to hear that no policeman is needed to maintain order or to ensure a good learning environment. This is in contrast to what Leo students would face if enrolled instead in a Chicago public school mandated by their home address.
Other stories from Amplify School Choice Conference include: