Our work in education focuses on the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. We recognize that there are many factors influencing how a child learns. Our collaborative effort addresses components vital to every child’s growth and well-being: academic support and college readiness, after-school enrichment, teen employment, housing and healthcare. Our network of strategic partnerships strengthens the community through specialized services and programs. The Comer Education Campus is comprised of Gary Comer Youth Center, Gary Comer College Prep, Gary Comer Middle School and UtmostU. The campus forms the cornerstone of our mission to improve urban education and the lives of children.
Gary Comer Youth Center (GCYC) was founded in May 2006. The Youth Center’s mission is to provide support to help students graduate from high school ready to pursue college and a career. The Youth Center offers positive extracurricular alternatives in a welcoming and safe environment. Programs within the 80,000 square-foot facility include college readiness, sports and fitness, academic tutoring, performing and visual arts, health and wellness, urban agriculture, culinary arts, media and technology, civic engagement and leadership development, and teen employment. The Youth Center draws its primary membership from the immediate neighborhood as well as from other parts of the South Side. It also serves as the home of the South Shore Drill Team, a group of more than 300 young people who perform unique flag, rifle and dance routines. In addition, the Youth Center hosts numerous special events and activities open to the broader public throughout the year. The youth center is now supported by hundreds of generous individuals, corporations and foundations. To learn more, please visit gcychome.org.
In response to the need for a high-performing high school in the neighborhood, the Comer Family Foundation partnered with Noble Network of Charter Schools to establish Gary Comer College Prep (GCCP). In August 2008, it welcomed its first class of freshmen, and in 2011, GCCP expanded to include middle school. The school’s vision is to develop well rounded and successful college graduates based on the Noble Network pillars of scholarship, discipline and honor. GCCP staff members, families, and community partners are committed to ensuring high school and college success for all their students. The state-of-the-art high school building, completed in August 2010, operates as a common campus with the adjacent Youth Center. GCCP students participate in Youth Center programming after school and during the summer. More than 700 students are enrolled at Gary Comer College Prep. Since its inception, 100% of GCCP seniors have been accepted to college and 99% have matriculated into college. In 2015, UtmostU was launched as a non-selective college success initiative offering a comprehensive approach to guide students throughout the entire college journey and earn their degree.
In 1998, Mr. Comer Visited His Grammar School
As you gaze at the 80,000-square-foot, brightly colored Gary Comer Youth Center in southeast Chicago, it’s hard to imagine when the massive structure was only a wisp of an idea. The story of GCYC and its programs began in 1999, when Gary Comer visited his old neighborhood. The son of a railroad man and homemaker, Comer grew up in a humble home on 69th and Kimbark during the depression era. As Comer walked the familiar streets, he noted numerous changes. Many vacant lots and boarded-up houses filled the neighborhood and no children played in the local park. One thing remained the same, however. Although the depression had long passed, signs of hardship abounded. Ninety percent of residents were considered low-income.
Recalling fond memories from his years at the Paul Revere Grammar School, Comer decided to visit. There he met Principal Shelby Taylor. Although Taylor did not know Comer, he agreed to show him around the aging facility. The school was clean and orderly, but woefully lacking in technology and modern amenities. Furthermore, leadership was constantly in flux: Taylor was Revere’s third principal in just two years. Concerned by the state of the school, Comer wanted to take action.
Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked.
Indeed there was. Although the local school council mandated the purchase of 20 new computers, Revere would need an electrical upgrade in order to plug them in. “This made me realize that if these children graduated from grammar school without knowing how to operate a computer, they were going to be severely disadvantaged,” Comer said.
A few days later, Comer wrote a check not only to wire the school, but also to install the new machines, purchase computer programs and bring in tutors to train Revere’s teachers on how to use the equipment.
When Taylor asked how he could ever thank Comer, Comer made one request: a soul food lunch. During the meal, Comer made a commitment to Taylor to help turn Revere around.
From 1999 to 2001, Comer spent countless hours studying the complex issues surrounding urban education, such as teacher retention and the struggles of students raised in single-parent homes. As a result of his research and conversations with Taylor, Comer knew updating the school would not be enough to improve children’s lives. “I began to realize the importance of after-school activities,” he said. In addition, Comer envisioned evening programs for adults that would lead to better home environments. To discuss these ideas, Taylor and Comer called a community meeting in Revere’s library. A dozen people attended the first gathering, including Comer, Taylor, a few parents and community activists, and a local education leader named Greg Mooney.
“Gary got up and introduced the reason why we were there, but he was very brief,” said Mooney, who now serves as GCYC’s executive director. “He knew how to say something simply and poignantly, but he was never verbose. Then he sat down and the principal got up and spoke. Gary wrote what people were saying on his legal pad.”
The gathering set the stage for community-driven development helmed by the ambitious entrepreneur. “While he approached this community with reverence and respect, he also wanted things to happen at an aggressive pace,” Mooney said. As word about the meetings spread, attendance swelled to more than 100 people. While ideas abounded, the turning point for Comer’s vision came one night when a man named Arthur Robertson raised his hand. The founder of the neighborhood’s accomplished South Shore Drill Team, Robertson shared a story about the teens in the precision performance group. With no formal practice space, they met wherever there was room—from various school gymnasiums to parking lots.
Arthur had changed the lives of over a thousand children and he had done it with few resources,” Comer said. “I realized I had the resources to help many more thousands of kids by providing a home for after-school activities and for the South Shore Drill Team.”
A building next to Revere, he knew, could support all the programs he and the community envisioned. On May 26, 2006, at the GCYC’s grand opening, a beaming Comer led then-Chicago Mayor Daley and a small group of staff and visitors through the completed building, proudly showcasing the kitchen designed to feed 800 kids a day, 8,600 square foot rooftop garden, media lab, recording studio, gymnasium, dance studio and more. The youth center, he explained, would offer a wide range of programs including college readiness, athletics, academic tutoring, performing and visual arts, health and wellness, culinary arts, technology and urban agriculture.
At the end of the tour, Comer and the group emerged through the building’s front doors to greet several hundred people including the center’s new staff, friends, family, partners, and members of the community. As Comer took the stage, the audience erupted into a standing ovation. Although near the end of his life, Comer channeled this energy to share his sentiments.
The Youth Center is dedicated to providing a greater opportunity for young people in this neighborhood to practice, to learn, to study, and to sharpen their skills and intellect,” he said. “This Youth Center is for the children. May they use it well.”
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Revere Way is a comprehensive community revitalization project designed to improve and stabilize the area surrounding the Paul Revere Elementary School. The project includes development of more than 60 affordable, fine-quality homes for individuals and families in a transforming neighborhood. Revere Way homes are built with environmentally conscious construction materials and Energy-Star compliant appliances. In addition, the project has created job opportunities for neighborhood residents through construction apprenticeships and ongoing building efforts, including a home-improvement program for existing homeowners.
Working in close partnership with the City of Chicago and the local community over several years, foundation planning and investments have helped pave the way for the new Grand Crossing Branch of the Chicago Public Library, which was completed in 2011. The library sits just one block from the Gary Comer Youth Center and serves the community as another key building block in this educational corridor.