The physical distance between Providence St. Mel (PSM) — a private, coeducational college prep school in East Garfield Park — and the Auditorium Theatre, performance home of The Joffrey Ballet, is only a little over five miles, but in many ways they are worlds apart. Longtime Joffrey Board of Directors member Mary Jo Basler, a child of the West Side of Chicago herself, was determined to bridge that divide.
Inspired by the selfless example of her late father, Martin Masterson, a Garfield Park policeman who quietly helped neighborhood families living around the school, Basler joined the PSM Board in 1992 to continue his good work.
It was there she met award-winning educators Paul Adams, the school’s Executive Chairman and Founder, and Jeanette Butala, who joined PSM in 1996 as head of the Lower School and now serves as its President and Principal. Over the past 25 years, Butala has transformed the school, creating a curriculum for the Lower School, hiring staff, doing long-term strategic planning, and training today’s leaders, including Assistant Principal Tim Ervin, PSM Class of ‘91.
“She has been creating miracles on the West Side without any press or publicity,” Basler says.
PSM is an oasis in an often-troubled Chicago neighborhood. There is very little faculty turnover, and the staff is absolutely dedicated to the students’ success. Every one of the 350 current students receives some form of financial assistance, and many are awarded additional need-based financial aid or merit scholarships, but every family makes some contribution. If a family can’t make a basic donation, they volunteer in the school. Perhaps the most astonishing is that a majority of PSM’s revenue comes from contributions and fundraising, driven largely by the generosity and personal outreach of board members.
“The donors see that they are creating great citizens of the world,” says Basler.
The results are undeniable: since the archdiocese closed the school 41 years ago and it later reopened as a private school, every graduate of PSM has been accepted to a four-year college or university.
What sets PSM apart, when so many CPS schools struggle with attendance and graduation rates? Accountability for students, parents, faculty, and administration, for one.
“We have a real responsibility to our students and our parents,” says Butala. “It’s about physical and emotional security. We have a responsibility to keep them safe, to attend to the honor code.”
The four pillars of their credo — “Work. Plan. Build. Dream.” — encourage the kids to be forward thinking.
And the school, because kids thrive in an environment where they feel safe to succeed and explore their intellect and creativity, feels alive with possibility. For a smaller school, they have an impressive commitment to the arts, providing instruction in orchestra, band, chorus, dance, theater, and visual arts.
Sensing a creative synergy, Basler connected PSM and the Joffrey early on. Personally committed to the partnership between the two organizations, for many years Basler has underwritten the work of Joffrey’s Community Engagement team at PSM, which has included collaboration on the school’s musical productions. To celebrate the school’s 30th anniversary in 2008, Butala and her arts team decided to put on a school musical, and the Joffrey’s Community Engagement Team developed the choreography for PSM’s production of “The Wiz,” an incredible opportunity for the students. The Joffrey has been part of the equation ever since, through shows including “Sister Act,” “In the Heights,” and “Hello, Dolly!” April Shipp, Joffrey Community Engagement Teaching Artist, was the choreographer for this year’s show, “High School Musical,” which ran for three performances in November at the school’s Dan and Karen Pritzker Auditorium.
Richard Harrison, a senior at PSM, has been in the annual musical since he first came to PSM in eighth grade. He is currently preparing for college auditions in musical theater, and played Zeke in “High School Musical.”
“If I hadn’t come to PSM, I wouldn’t have the same passion for musical theater and education. They really push us here. It might be tiring, but you see the greater outcome and you keep pushing,” Harrison says.
“They help you see the bigger picture,” chimes in senior Malayah Johnson, a serious flutist who also loves playing character roles in the musicals. “I get such a thrill from being on stage and listening to the audience laugh. It’s really my happy place.”
“We get sad after a show closes,” Harrison says. “It’s so fun to do, but then you miss your family within the cast. We won’t be telling stories, impacting people’s lives, or inspiring each other anymore … until the next show. I take musical theater to heart. It’s such a beautiful art form.”
Although the musical may be over for this year, the bond the kids form on stage carries through to the classrooms of PSM. The spirit of collaboration, fostered by the inspirational partnership Basler initiated with Joffrey’s Community Engagement programs and a school full of students eager to learn, continues unabated. The divide has been bridged, and the show — most definitely — will go on.