Replicating Hope

By Joel Stender

I was impressed on my first visit to Perspectives Charter School (PCS) when several middle school students walked up, stuck out their hands and offered to show me around. It was 2001 when a friend described his participation on the board of one of the first five charter schools in Illinois. I was immediately attracted to the challenge of applying my strategic planning expertise to education, so I joined him at PCS.

There are many heart-warming stories about kids’ lives being changed, hopes and aspirations being born, and heroic teachers picking up kids who haven’t figured out how to succeed and duct-taping them back on the track. But, I’ll try to be selective.

In an early board meeting, we were discussing potential strategies around $5 million in TIF funds raised to build a state-of-the-art school building to replace the rusting steel hulk on the corner of 19th, State and Archer on Chicago’s South Side. Our student population was expected to increase from 150 to 356, and the founding board chairman Rod Joslin asked, “What next?” Soon-to-be Chairman Larry Ashkin and I answered that instead of making our kids the luckiest handful of public-school students in Chicago, maybe we should set our sights higher—as in changing the way public education is delivered.

That set off a long and emotional debate. Several board members assured us we were crazy to consider such an impossible notion. They were satisfied with our small pocket of success and absolutely didn’t want to jeopardize what had been achieved. I raised my hand and emphasized that many more kids would have a chance for an improved education and opportunity to achieve hopes and dreams if we began opening additional schools. Those kids would graduate from our schools and some would return from college desiring to serve their community and become PCS teachers. I admitted I couldn’t project all the challenges we’d face, but whatever arose, I committed that through our combined creativity and energy, we’d identify and execute solutions and deliver a quality educational product—and our kids and our city would benefit.

The chairman called for a vote on the motion to replicate. The narrow victory we won that day, a little over 10 years ago, opened the door. We leveraged our collective education, resources, experience and talent and the support of generous philanthropists across Chicago and the U.S. Today, Perspectives Charter Schools is 2,300 kids and multiple campuses strong. Children that entered as sixth graders and who never previously heard of college are beginning to return as teacher applicants with undergraduate and graduate degrees.

It’s an amazing development considering the school’s start. Perspectives was formed in 1993, by two young Chicago public school teachers who were unhappy with the progress of their economically disadvantaged students. They gained their principal’s permission to commence a school within a school in the building’s basement. Their 35 kids so dramatically outperformed the kids in the traditional track that the highest officials in the school district began to take notice. In 1997, they succeeded in applying to become one of the first five charter schools in Illinois.

Perspectives’ recipe for success is baked into 26 principles and a curriculum called “A Disciplined Life.” These form the foundation of the school’s culture and help prepare students for success in college, the workplace and life. They teach kids to be ladies and gentlemen, and they promote an environment in which effective teaching and learning are nurtured.

There are seemingly infinite challenges. The typical PCS family is a single-parent, economically disadvantaged household. The parent often did not complete high school and in many cases there’s no thought of going to college. The incoming sixth graders (Perspectives serves middle school through high school) are already often three years behind in their educational development.

A few years ago, the Chicago Tribune reported that only six out of 100 9th graders in Chicago public schools will earn a college degree by the time they are 25.

In the face of these odds, Perspectives teachers prepare students for college and for life. In 2010, when I concluded my long tenure as board vice-chairman, almost all high school seniors graduated and 97 percent were accepted to college. Since that time, the U.S. Department of Education supported efforts to share A Disciplined Life with schools throughout the country. Soon enough, our model will change the way public education is delivered.

Joel Stender, WG’71, majored in management information and control. Following a four-year stint with Levitt & Sons and Levitt Residential Communities, helping develop several of the country’s early planned residential communities, he commenced a 35-year trading career mostly at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which morphed into private equity and venture capital. He lives in Chicago with his wife Donna, WG’71.

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