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A Philadelphia Catholic School Leader’s Vision for High Expectations in the Classroom, Empowering Families With School Choice — and Living the Golden Rule

By Mimi Woldeyohannes | May 27, 2019

Students at Philadelphia’s Gesu School demonstrating their belief in grit. (Facebook)

Bryan Carter is no stranger to the concept of school choice. In fact, he is a product of a mother who decided to exercise school choice and send Carter and his brothers to a Catholic grade school and a Jesuit high school in the heart of Cleveland. Now he sits as president and CEO of Gesu School, a well-known, academically rigorous independent Catholic school in North Philadelphia serving 450 mostly non-Catholic children in grades pre-K through 8.

“My brothers and I benefited greatly from our Catholic and Jesuit educational experiences, and we try and offer the same opportunity for our children at Gesu,” he told The 74.

Prior to coming to Gesu, Carter served as the resource and community development director for the 96-year-old national adoption agency The Cradle. Carter helped place more than 14,000 children into permanent homes. He said he found the work to be a fulfilling opportunity where he was able to apply his fundraising background toward a valuable cause while serving his community.

Carter also finds a higher calling in his work educating children.

“I believe that a faith-based school basically helps everyone understand the golden rule: Treat people the way you want to be treated,” he said.

Carter indicated that Gesu places a strong emphasis on academic excellence, religious faith and character development to prepare students for high school success and to lead a productive and generous role in society.

In June 2011, Carter became Gesu School’s third president and CEO since the school became independent in 1993. Gesu celebrated its 25th anniversary as an independent school last year. Carter will join other African-American education leaders on a panel Wednesday in Philadelphia for a town hall event called “Is School Choice the Black Choice?” hosted by The 74 and journalist Roland Martin. Learn more about the event here.

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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: You’re speaking at a panel discussion called “Is School Choice the Black Choice?” What does school choice mean to you personally and professionally?

Carter: Professionally, it means giving children an opportunity to get the best education possible and giving them an opportunity to decide for themselves what school would be the best fit for them. When my family first moved to Philadelphia, we lived in a zip code that had one of the top schools in the state that I had the option to send my daughter to. At the time, I also had the option to send my daughter to a private Catholic school because I was able to afford to do so.

However, the reality is that the zip codes in which a lot of our families reside contain persistently poor-performing schools and they don’t necessarily have the choice to send their children to a high-performing school. Poverty is also a real part of their existence, which ultimately disables them from sending their children to a different school. I grew up in Cleveland, where I was raised in an area that was surrounded by consistently low-performing public schools, so my mother decided to send me and my brothers to a Catholic high school [also one of the top schools in the city], and we benefited greatly from that. We try and offer the same opportunity for our children at Gesu, and I believe this opportunity is something that should be available to all families in Philadelphia, regardless of their zip codes.

What makes Gesu School stand apart from the rest of the schools in Philadelphia?

We have a dedicated faculty that’s focused on serving the children in Gesu’s neighboring areas. Oftentimes, our children don’t have the advantages that others have because they’re directly impacted by deep poverty, and our teachers are consistently focused on giving back. They’re also very talented. All of our faculty members have the opportunity to go to St. Joseph’s [University] to get their master’s degree in education. We also have a dedicated leadership team that’s been at Gesu for a long time. The structure and culture of the school starts at the top with Sister Ellen and I, and the children essentially understand the expectations we have of them and the expectations for them.

The expectations we have of them is that when they come to Gesu, they remain focused, and from a behavioral standpoint, we have high expectations around that, and ultimately they come to understand what those expectations are. The expectations we have for them is that when they leave us, they will be prepared academically to go to the high school that’s the best fit for them and that they’re thinking about college or how they can be productive citizens in whatever employment they decide to pursue.

Another aspect that differentiates us from other schools is that we have single-gender classrooms for children in grades 3-8. This helps drive academic success because it becomes more of a competitive environment that pushes them to succeed academically.

We also have an outstanding board of trustees that their only question is, “What more can we do for the children?” They are always focused on doing more for Gesu’s students to ensure they are successful.

What exactly does the Gesu School experience consist of? Can you provide additional context in regard to your school model? Moreover, considering that Gesu is a Catholic school and only 7 percent of your student body identifies as Catholic, how does that ultimately influence your overall model and approach?

We want to grow the children academically, spiritually and personally. As a result of going to a Catholic school, I’m a firm believer that there’s a real benefit associated with a faith-based school model. I also believe that a faith-based school basically helps everyone understand the golden rule: Treat people they way you want to be treated. There’s also a service component of being men and women for others. We’ve benefited from the generosity of many men and women who have given back to us, and they serve as a role model for our students.

In terms of our school model, people have always expressed that they want more Gesu Schools throughout the city of Philadelphia because of how well our children perform. The model is essentially one that embodies how serious we are about the high expectations we have for our kids, while also letting our students know that when they stumble or fall, there will always be someone to help them at Gesu. We want our children to know that when it gets tough academically or relationally, they will be expected to show grit and try to work through it and ask for help as needed.

At Gesu, we have adopted an academic and character profile, called MAGIS [a Jesuit tenet that means “to do more” in Latin]. The “M” stands for motivation, because we want the children to be motivated to succeed and to help one another. The “A” represents awareness, because we want our children to be aware of their opportunity, their surroundings and how they can give back to improve circumstances for others. The “G” stands for grit, which reminds our students to be resilient. The “I” stands for independence, which is focused on the opportunity to work independently and collaboratively as a part of each student’s development. The “S” stands for social competence, which is intended to remind students how they are going to be of benefit to others. All of these combined elements are integrated throughout the entire school.

What are some of the strengths and challenges associated with your school model? Can you also tell us about the academic outcomes for your students vs. their peers in neighborhood schools or the rest of Philly students?

In terms of outcomes, because of open enrollment, it’s basically first come, first served. With this type of open enrollment system, we have children enrolled who arrive academically prepared, some who are in the middle and some who fall short. From a literacy perspective, we have strategic programs in place to ensure that our children are reading at grade level. As a result, many of the children end up reading on grade level by the time they get to third or fourth grade. We also have additional intervention programs set up for students who are struggling and for advanced students. If students are struggling in language arts, we have a resource room where some students can go to in order to receive additional instruction. For our high-performing students, we have an advanced class where students can go to receive advanced instruction. This helps ensure that each student’s areas of development are focused on by various teachers.

Another strength is our students’ graduation rates. We’ve noticed that 90 percent of our students go on to graduate high school on time and 85 percent of them go on to college. When I first came on board, I didn’t think of that as a big feature, but considering that we’re surrounded by high schools with graduation rates of approximately 65 percent, this is actually a real strength of our school. Our students are also attending the top independent or highly selective magnet and/or charter schools. The outcomes are very strong, and that’s why Gesu is popular among families.

Lastly, being an independent Catholic school allows us to offer a curriculum that prepares children for high school and beyond because we’re able to mold the curriculum ourselves to ensure that the children are getting all that they need academically. For example, this year we were able to expose our children to a foreign language curriculum and now students in grades K-2 are taking Spanish. Since we’re obligated to raise 90 percent of our entire operating budget, we get to pick and choose what we can do for our children. This year, we thought it was best to ensure that they didn’t leave Gesu without an exposure to a foreign language, and it’s ultimately as a result of having a flexible model that allows us to shape the curriculum. Although we primarily use the archdiocese’s curriculum, we’re still able to do things a little differently if we see the opportunity to do things that benefit the children.

As far as challenges are concerned, our biggest challenge is the many components of poverty that accompany our families we work with. Many of our children have difficult home situations, and we’re blessed to have a staff of counselors and social workers to help children and families to navigate difficult circumstances in their lives. The ramifications of deep poverty continue to be a challenge for many of our students, because they just can’t leave everything at the school door. The reality is that some of those burdens associated with poverty come in with our students, and we’re fortunate to have counselors and social workers to support our students with their needs.

Moreover, while it’s a huge asset to have great success among our children and their outcomes along with a mission that effectively resonates with our faculty, our families and our supporters, fundraising also continues to remain a challenge. It’s a heavy lift to have to raise approximately $5 million every year, and it’s difficult to start every year with this ambitious fundraising goal.

Can you discuss how your school is financed?

Our school revenue is derived from a combination of tuition costs, the tax credit scholarship program, our Sponsor a Child program, a variety of fundraising events and our annual appeal. Our families submit their financial information to our school, and based on that information, the school determines what they can pay financially. About 25 percent of families have an income of less than $25,000, which means they would only be expected to contribute a small amount toward tuition expenses. Some families pay $40 to $50 a month, while others pay more. About 10 percent of our budget comes from tuition. We also raise about $1.5 million through the tax credit scholarship program, a significant part of our $5 million budget. Frankly, it would be difficult for Gesu to exist without the tax credit program being in place. Our Sponsor a Child program allows individual donors to make a gift that would help sponsor a child’s tuition, which is also another significant part of our budget. Gesu also hosts an annual fundraising gala, which helps bring in extra money that would go toward the school’s operating budget. Finally, Gesu has an annual appeal where the school sends out a letter to their donor base twice a year to share an interesting success story of one of Gesu’s alumni and how they benefited from their experience at Gesu.

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You are a part of the small group of network leaders who are African American — what does that mean to you and what does that mean for your scholars?

The summer before I started at Gesu, I met with the vice chair of the school’s board, who mentioned that I was going to be a role model for the children at Gesu. I initially didn’t consider myself to be a role model for the children, but I quickly learned that what he said to me was true. Since then, I have taken that to heart and I am compelled to be my best self for my students every day, because I consistently ask for them to be their best selves while they’re at Gesu and after they leave. When I was in high school, I never saw anyone that looked like me in a leadership position throughout the entire school, and therefore I believe that it is important for my students to see someone that looks like them in a position of leadership, because the reality is that many schools have African-American children who can’t see themselves in positions of leadership. At Gesu, we’re blessed to have a diverse faculty, along with myself, to be role models for our children, and we take this responsibility seriously.

This school year marks 25 years since your school was founded. How has the school evolved over the past 25 years? What do you envision the next 25 years bringing?

Part of the evolution for the school and the children is the question: What more can be done for the kids? We currently have advanced classes and resource rooms to address our students’ varying needs. We also have recently improved our students’ access to technology where each student in grades 3-8 has their own Chromebook, and for students in K-2, the iPad ratio is 1 to 2. However, over the next 25 years, we would like to grow our facilities to provide our students with a 21st century academic experience. Additionally, we’re also looking to expand our course offerings.

I often meet with some of our eighth-graders at lunch to ask them about things they would change and things they would keep the same at Gesu. Throughout these meetings, it was evident that they would like their school to expand access to technology and for us to look into various innovative ways to receive instruction. When I asked them about what they wouldn’t change about their school, they indicated that they would want their talented faculty members to remain because they recognize that their teachers actually care about them and their learning experience at Gesu.

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