Can $86 Million Save a Neighborhood?

Fifteen years ago, Lands’ End founder Gary Comer embarked on a wildly ambitious project to improve the struggling South Side neighborhood where he grew up.

Comer-built houses dot Pocket Town’s streets.   Photo: Mike Schwartz

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The Gary Comer Youth Center on South Chicago Avenue
 

When Gary Comer was a boy, Pocket Town was an enclave of tidy single-family homes owned by hard-working European immigrants. Many of them had jobs at the nearby rail lines, as did Comer’s father, a conductor; his mother was a homemaker. Comer “was always humbled and amazed at his own success, and he attributed a lot of it to his upbringing,” says his son.

After graduating from Hyde Park High School in 1946, Comer skipped college (too expensive) for a copywriting job at the advertising agency Young & Rubicam in Chicago. He married Francie Ceraulo, who worked in public relations and they had two children, Stephanie and Guy. (Stephanie, now 46, runs a second Comer family foundation.) Meanwhile, in 1963, he turned a passion for sailing and a $30,000 loan into Lands’ End, one of the first catalog companies that sold clothing with a nautical theme.

As he built the business, says Guy, “my dad would often take us back to his old neighborhood.” He would point out his old haunts: his childhood home at 69th and Kimbark, Revere
Elementary, and Oakwood Cemetery, upon whose walls he had played games.

When Lands’ End went public in 1986 (Sears bought it 16 years later), Comer became one of the wealthiest businessmen in Chicago. He began using his good fortune to do “useful things”—including sponsoring Field Museum explorations to South America and funding cancer research.

It was that 1999 visit to Pocket Town that “really got him thinking about helping kids,” says Bill Schleicher, a longtime Comer adviser who manages the family’s assets. Though he did not start out with some grand visionary plan, “he got more and more involved as he . . . learned how impoverished his old neighborhood had become.”

Improving educational opportunities—starting with Revere—was Comer’s top priority. “He believed that was the only way to ensure change in the neighborhood,” says Guy.

Early on, Comer and his staff at the foundation debated whether to prop up Revere or design a new charter school from scratch. They chose the former. “We would’ve had to close down the school for a year in order to turn it into a charter, and that’s where the conversation always stopped,” explains Schleicher. “What would those kids have done [in the meantime]?”

A research junkie, Comer spent countless hours studying Revere. He learned that its students’ reading, math, and writing scores were chronically so low that Revere had been on Chicago Public Schools’ academic probation list for years. Absenteeism was rampant. Taylor, who had started on the job five months before Comer came knocking, was the school’s fourth principal in 18 months. “Gary knew more about my school than I did,” says Taylor.

For every problem Comer encountered, he would propose a solution. To stop students from wearing gang colors, for example, he “bought every single kid—nearly 700 of them—three tops, two bottoms, and a sweater,” says Taylor.

Comer helped set up a science club and sent daily e-mails to its members. He put maps and globes in every classroom. He bought laptops for students. And when President Clinton launched a federal initiative to bring new technology to poor urban communities, Comer personally handled Revere’s bid for funds. “I spent that Christmas with Gary, in my office, filling out the applications,” says Taylor. (Revere wound up receiving $368,000, which paid for a total of 138 computers in its 23 classrooms.)

Taylor says Comer’s commitment to Revere eventually reached upward of $1 million annually—twice as much as the school was receiving from federal and state aid combined. With that money, the school did everything from remodel its auditorium to bring in experts to train teachers.

When students graduated from Revere, they headed to South Shore High School, a couple of miles away, which had an abysmal graduation rate of 50 percent. Comer wanted Pocket Town’s kids to have a strong high school right in the neighborhood. He decided that building a charter school—publicly funded but privately run—was the way to go.

Gary Comer College Prep opened in 2008 and moved in 2010 to a new building, designed by the renowned Chicago architect John Ronan. The neon-green exterior stands out as a true “beacon of optimism,” wrote Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic.

Comer Prep is part of the Noble Network, the city’s highest-performing group of charter high schools. Comer’s foundation owns the building, and the Chicago Public Schools created an attendance boundary for students who live in the neighborhood, guaranteeing them priority enrollment.

Like all Noble schools, it is extremely strict. (Students get “the Catholic treatment,” says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.) For example, a demerit system penalizes students for a wide range of offenses, from classroom misbehavior to untucked shirts. Incurring four demerits costs kids an afternoon of detention and $5.

College counseling is a huge focus. Last year, every graduating senior who went on to college was given a cell phone on the condition that he or she check in regularly with Comer Prep’s full-time alumni coordinator. (While the foundation does not pay students’ college tuition, it helps them secure financial aid.)

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Photograph: Mike Schwartz

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