OLD TOWN — Slated for closing by Chicago Public Schools not four years ago, Manierre Elementary has achieved a turnaround that's been called a "quiet miracle."
But in order to complete the process, Manierre Principal Derrick Orr wants to inspire his students to go on to college.
"As we continue to grow academically, we have to connect them to college," Orr said.
So two years ago he started organizing college trips for Manierre eighth-graders.
"It's not a 'typical' spring trip," he said. "It's actually our middle-school college tour where we take our eighth-graders to different cities to see different universities."
This year, they're planning to send 25 students and 10 staff members on the most ambitious of the three annual trips they've undertaken. Over a week starting April 1, they'll travel to Los Angeles, New Orleans and Miami, along the way visiting the University of Southern California, the University of California at Los Angeles, Dillard, Southern and Grambling State universities, the University of Miami and Florida International University.
But there's a snag. Facing a Wednesday deadline, they're about $1,200 short of a required payment.
In what's become an annual effort, a GoFundMe page touting the "quiet miracle" at Manierre set a $25,000 goal last year, including $15,000 for the trip and $10,000 for school supplies and an anti-dropout program, and is about two-thirds of the way there.
"If we do not complete the fundraising, I fear that the principal of Manierre will take money out of his own pocket to cover the shortfall," said Dennis Hauser, who took an avid interest in the school and its progress after moving into the neighborhood a couple of years ago and who set up the GoFundMe page. "He’s put thousands of his own money into the previous trips."
"I spend $3,000 to $5,000 out of my own pocket every year to make it happen," Orr confirmed.
Yet Orr feels it's essential. The most recent test scores and reports for Manierre have seen it fall just short of the score that would put it in "good standing" with CPS.
"We're hoping to kick that door down this year," he said, in final ratings that will be assessed over the summer before the new school year in the fall.
"We're really doing some wonderful things over here," Orr said. "We're trying to change things to get everyone where they need to be.
"We've never been this high academically in the school's history," he added.
Crediting his staff and faculty first and foremost, Orr said, "Before we took over five years ago, the school was on probation 10 years in a row. So we've come a long way. We like to call it the new Manierre."
But the improvement at Manierre, at 1420 N. Hudson Ave., wasn't having the desired end result on students.
"We noticed the kids were getting their academics, but they weren't going off to college," Orr said.
The students weren't graduating from the neighborhood Lincoln Park High School.
"So I said, 'You know what? This is something I need to take on,'" Orr said. "If they're dropping out before they're juniors or seniors, then they need to start seeing colleges now, and not just read about going to college, but walk across the Morehouse campus, the Spellman campus, and talk to different people who are in college."
The ultimate goal, he added, is "not just thinking about college, not just wanting to go there, but to try to make it a reality."
Some 99 percent of Manierre students are low-income, with most coming from the Marshall Field Garden Apartments.
"Most of these families just don't have the funds to go to these places," Orr said. "Some of them, this will be their first time on a plane. This will be the first time out of the city. So we're just shooting for the stars."
If that seems overambitious to skeptics, Orr said look at the progress already made at Manierre.
"We were left for dead," he said. "We were the lowest of the lowest. We were one of the schools slated to be closed" in 2013.
"They were actually boxing us up while we were in the building," Orr added.
He was only months into the job when CPS' then-Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd Bennett came to the school and gave him 30 minutes "to tell me why should this school be saved," Orr recalled her saying.
"I knew where I wanted to go with the school, so when I finished talking three hours later, when she left, the next day we found out we were saved. From that point on," he added, "we've been moving forward ever since.
"I can't do it without the team I have here," Orr said. "It's not me. It's actually the wonderful job that my teachers are doing.
"They just needed to be reassured, loved, get some professional development, so we recruited more teachers onto our team, and we've been working our butts off for five years."
The story, Orr said, shouldn't go unnoticed given the city's battle with street violence.
"We're trying to bring something positive out of Chicago instead of always reading about someone getting shot," he said
In five years as principal, Orr said he's been to 42 funerals involving people who've attended Manierre or are somehow connected with the school.
So Manierre stays open after hours, he said, to give the students a place to be, like the computer lab, and to keep them off the streets.
"We do everything here to make sure the kids want to come to school and want to stay in school," Orr said, and ideally that includes staying in school through college. "I want them to know they're just as special as everyone else, and they should have the same opportunities."