At Chicago West Side School, Education Still Best Antidote to Poverty

At Providence-St. Mel School, in the heart of Chicago’s West Side, where poverty, drugs and crime too often mutes the dreams of children there, the recipe for academic achievement and success in life thrives. John Fountain is a 1978 graduate and writes about his love for the school and its continued legacy and its founder

“We Believe” — This is first in a five-part series on the author’s reflections on the crisis in urban education and his alma mater, a place he calls “Adams’ Castle”

By John W. Fountain

Dear Mr. Adams, How are you? Well. I hope.

It is hard to believe it’s been nearly 40 years since I graduated from Providence-St. Mel that warm day in June 1978 when television news cameras swarmed our commencement, which was supposed to be the school’s last in light of the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese’s decision to close it for “financial” reasons.

Nearly four decades later, Adams’ Castle is still going strong. I guess you — and all of those who have embraced your vision and dream of education — have proved the naysayers, skeptics and even the haters (lol) wrong.

I know that you shy away from the limelight (preferring instead to delight in the glory of your students’ successes). That you don’t expect praise for what you believe you have been called to do. And I suspect you may be a little wary of the title — Adams’ Castle — by which I affectionately have come to call St. Mel.

“The truly enslaved still can’t read. And there remains a direct correlation between illiteracy and incarceration.”

So let me explain: Even more than the building’s resemblance to a castle is the impenetrable refuge it has provided for generations. It was its safety, the fertile learning ground we found there and the infectious faith in the power of education and in our ability to someday mount up on wings of knowledge, and fly, even soar.

Inside we found a man who saw us as educable. A man in whose eyes, each time we reached some new academic milestone, we saw delight and pride.

For some of us, he was father — a stern and yet loving surrogate for the men who had abandoned us. He was mentor, a rock — unmovable. A black man who stood, stuck, stayed.

He was keeper of the gate, the man who could make green grass grow — even on the West Side. And if he was king of this castle, we certainly were not paupers. We were princes and princesses.

And finally, when it was time to matriculate, we left prepared — unafraid to face a world sometimes cruel, often unfair, forever challenging.

So we have stood. Even now, we stand — having had the privilege of a royal education from the castle that still stands as the vision, heart and soul of one man: Not Joe Clark. Not Geoffrey Canada. Or Tim King… But Paul J. Adams III — king of our beloved castle.

It amazes me how politicians and “educators” continue to go ‘round and ‘round with trying to solve the crisis in urban education. This much is clear: They can spend billions more without ever making a dent.

I am reminded that once upon a time, the education of slaves was illegal. Slave owners feared literacy for they understood that an educated slave is no longer a slave.

Today the truly enslaved still can’t read. And there remains a direct correlation between illiteracy and incarceration.

Yet, education remains the vehicle to freedom and the antidote to racism, classism and ignorance. And I have resolved that the real issue about education really isn’t about education. It is about our will — our commitment to justice, freedom and equality.

This much is also clear: That as an educator, you have cared not about elevating your social or political status on students’ backs, not about honorary degrees, awards or accolades. We were never some career stepping stone, but your life’s mission.

What’s clear is that long before the explosion of charter schools, there was Adams’ Castle. That you fashioned not a school for the elite but for all who want to learn.

And to ever forget the man, the vision, the history, or the heart that is Adams’ Castle is to risk eventually extinguishing this lifeline of education for future generations of so many poor black children whom society will undoubtedly otherwise leave to drown.

Mr. Adams, you are Providence-St. Mel. And your legacy is countless changed lives and an educational transformation center that stands with the help of so many others who proudly have also embraced your dream.

And this is the bedrock upon which the St. Mel dream rests: That for our lives one man was willing to give his.

Your sacrifice has changed our lives for generations to come. A host of doctors, lawyers, engineers, educators, and just plain good citizens — once students at Adams’ Castle — can testify to that.

And for all of us, I say, “We love you.” More than words can say.

May our Eternal Father ever bless you, richly.

With Love and Deep Admiration, JOHN.




Paul J. Adams III is founder of Providence-St. Mel School in Chicago, an independent private school grades Pre-K-12, where since 1979, 100 percent of its graduates have been accepted to major colleges and universities. Based in the heart of an impoverished neighborhood on the city’s West Side, the school’s no-nonsense, hard-work approach, have made it a model in urban education.
Banners outside Providence-St. Mel School on Chicago’s West Side proclaim the school’s mission: “Work, Plan, Build & Dream.”
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