Site Visit: San Miguel School Gary Comer Campus in Chicago

Comer Staff greeting students as they enter the building

Comer Staff greeting students as they enter the building

Jim Conti contributed this post — a visit to a site where  Inner City Teaching Corps (ICTC) of Chicago’s Volunteer Teaching Corps (VTC) members serve. Jim is the program’s Recruiting Coordinator and Associate Director.

For 18 years, the Inner-City Teaching Corps has placed highly excited and motivated recent college graduates in high-need, urban schools.  Though some schools have been partners for many years, the Inner-City Teaching Corps’s Volunteer Teaching Corps also searches out new placements for volunteer teachers.  One such partnership was established in 2007 and has had members of the Volunteer Teaching Corps ever since.  The character, identity, and make-up of the school are specific to this one placement, but the message and sense of hope are transferable to all other school placements.

San Miguel School – Gary Comer Campus is located on Chicago’s West-side, specifically within the Austin neighborhood.  The school and community are almost entirely African-American, with a small percentage of students and residents coming from a Hispanic background.  The neighborhood lies to the West of the Garfield Park and Humboldt Park neighborhoods, and to the East of Chicago’s first Western suburb, Oak Park.  For several years now, residents have been facing the loss of affordable housing as the surrounding neighborhoods continue to be re-gentrified and the identity of this proud neighborhood is transformed.

There are several public schools surrounding Comer (the nickname that staff affectionately uses to refer to the school).  Sadly, the schools are struggling to provide a quality education for their students.  Neighborhood violence and few resources make it hard for students to live up to their full potential.  Many parents look to Comer as a haven within the neighborhood, a place where students won’t have to worry about running out of supplies, sitting in classrooms that are overcrowded, or hallways that are filled with violence.

Comer is a pure middle school, serving students in fifth through eighth grades.  The doors were first opened in 2002 in the

Comer Students Using Computers

Comer Students Using Computers

old Our Lady Help of Christians School.  The building previously housed several other schools, including a K-8 Catholic school and an alternative public school.  When Comer opened its doors in 2002, a fifth grade class was all that entered the building.  The school grew each year over the next four years until it finally housed the full contingent of 120 students across four grade levels.

With the success of another campus in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, Comer is the second San Miguel model school to open in Chicago.  The San Miguel model is a type of school run through the Christian Brothers, a religious order committed to inner-city youth and education.

Both of the Chicago-based San Miguel schools, along with most across the country, are designed to bring struggling middle school-age children up to grade level so that they may attend competitive and selective high schools in their area.  The San Miguel model also calls upon young adults to give of themselves, routinely hiring volunteers as staff members.  Comer is no exception to this philosophy.

Comer is currently home to volunteers from the Inner-City Teaching Corps, Lasallian Volunteers, Mennonite Volunteers, and Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps.  For the Inner-City Teaching Corps (ICTC), there are currently three members of the Volunteer Teaching Corps (VTC) and one former UNITE member (the ICTC program for mid-career professionals).

Comer Staff 2009-2010

Comer Staff 2009-2010

The VTC teachers span grade levels and subject areas.  David D’Antonio (North Park University) and Katie Malnor (Macalaster College) are both second-year volunteers, teach Math and Science, and live in the VTC’s St. Frances of Rome Community.  They teach sixth and eighth graded, respectively.  Peter Maginot is new this year, coming from Johns Hopkins University, teaching fifth grading Reading and Language Arts, and living in the VTC’s Su Casa Community.  All three are active members of the staff, participating in various extracurricular activities, and engaging the Comer community.

Many questions often arise around the hiring of new teachers, especially those through Alternative Certification programs such as that offered by ICTC.  Kathy Donohue, Assistant Principal at Comer, happily addressed some of these questions to clarify why the school so highly values its volunteers.

“We only exist because of volunteer teachers, because of their generosity.  The financial situation of many of our families dictates that we need to fundraise everything.  Some of our primary benefactors are our teachers who work for far less than they deserve.  They donate their salaries and should be on our donor list.  They are mission-driven, and give of their talent, treasure, and time.”

When asked about how the school views bringing in teachers with limited classroom experience, Donohue’s comments echoed the same positive view.

“So much of teaching is passion.  With some challenges, they come well trained and ready for the classroom.  They come prepared and with a great support network behind them.  If there are any bumps, [the teaching coaches] are there to help along with the administrators.”  For VTC members, teaching coaches visit classrooms a minimum of every other week in the first year, and every three to four weeks in the second year.  There are also a number of additional resources available to VTC teachers including alumni of the program, in-school mentor teachers, and a teacher resource center.

Finally, Donohue explained how volunteer teachers, and especially teachers from the VTC, are viewed in the school community.  “All of our teachers are part of our school community.  All adults are part of this community for the purpose of the kids.  Every new staff member is welcomed with open arms.”

Comer continues to shine in the face of challenge, being built on the principles of faith and caring.  The community is a image001family to anyone lucky enough to find their way in.

For more information about Comer, visit, and for more information about the Inner-City Teaching Corps, visit

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