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Why Is This All-Girls Catholic School In Wicker Growing As Others Struggle?

By Alisa Hauser | October 25, 2017 9:03am
 Inside Josephinum Academy in Wicker Park.
Josephinum Academy In Wicker Park
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WICKER PARK — One of Chicago's oldest all-girls Catholic high schools commands almost an entire block of residential Wicker Park — yet there are no students from the neighborhood enrolled in Josephinum Academy of the Sacred Heart.

The school's president, Patti Tuomey, wants that to change.

"There are a lot of strollers in Wicker Park. It's important for people to know we are here," Tuomey said during a tour of the campus at 1501 N. Oakley Blvd. last week.

As young families responsible for Wicker Park's and Bucktown's baby boom decide to stay in the neighborhood, Toumey said she's hoping they'll consider the high school as an option for their daughters.

The school was founded in 1890. Its original building, made of wood, was torn down in the 1950s and replaced with a new school, according to Principal Mary Rose Guerin.

Josephinum serves 200 students, a substantial increase from 13 years ago, when there were 120 students, far less than the 700 enrolled during the school's heyday in the 1950 and 1960s, Guerin said.

The school aims to enroll 260 girls within the next four years, and eventually 320, Guerin said.

It's an encouraging place where Guerin said "all students are known by name," the class sizes are around 20 and a student-to-teacher ratio of 9-to-1 helps every student to feel welcome.

"By being all-girls and small, the students have the opportunity to develop their own voice. We hope they leave here having something to say and knowing they should be heard," Guerin said.

At a time when other all-girl Catholic schools are closing, the school — affectionately nicknamed "The Jo" by staff and students — continues to grow.

"We are in a fortunate place. It's appealing to families that in a city that is so segregated, especially in the public schools, we are a nice little mecca of diversity. Everyone is appreciated," Guerin said.

Josephinum's girls wear purple and white uniforms and enjoy "out-of-uniform days" throughout the year and the chance to "dress down" on their birthday, wrote 2017 senior Emily Pfeiffer in the school's biannual magazine.

Pfeiffer's essay, "5 Myths of All-Girls Education," pointed out that there are perks to wearing a uniform.

"I spent 20 to 30 minutes staring at my closet for the perfect outfit to wear back in my public co-ed school days. With a uniform, I get to sleep longer (always a plus) and I don't have to worry about exhausting my closet in an attempt to find a completely new outfit every day," Pfeiffer wrote.

The Josephinum girls hail from 43 Chicago ZIP codes and live in neighborhoods including Bucktown, Old Town, River North.  Some live in suburban Evanston.

Among Josephinum Academy's diverse student community, there are 20 nationalities represented and nine languages spoken at home.

Only half the students are practicing Catholics.

"There is a religion class. The non-Catholic kids take the course, too, and we just ask them to be respectful," Guerin said.

When senior Sophia Torres, a co-captain of Josephinum softball team and a Bucktown resident, moved from Miami to Chicago during her freshman year, she said she was not excited to go to a big high school in an unfamiliar city.

"I liked the small community of students here and the sisterhood that comes with an all-girls education," Torres said.

For years, the large open field next to the school was somewhat of an unofficial dog park after school hours.

In recent years, the field was fenced in. There is a large softball and soccer field under construction, thanks to grants from Chicago Cubs Charities Diamond Project and Big Shoulders Fund, as well as from an anonymous donor, Tuomey said.

The field will be ready this fall for fall sports and also will be made available to the public.

School spokeswoman Dorothy Coyle said "a process to facilitate [the field's] use by community members is being developed," with more details coming in the spring.

Josephinum Academy tuition is $8,980 a year, and most students receive financial aid, with the majority paying an average of $2,750 after $1 million in annual scholarships are awarded, according to Lindsay Bartlett, the school's events and scholarship coordinator.

A fundraising gala at the InterContinental Hotel Chicago on Sept. 30 raised more than $400,000 to support the school's scholarships. 

Thanks to the school's wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate curriculum for juniors and seniors, which focuses on more rigorous college prep courses, Guerin said the college acceptance rate is 100 percent. Last year, more than $4 million in college scholarships were awarded to the class of 2017.

The school recently brought on a postgraduate counselor for its former students.

"Many of our students are first-generation college-goers. Our postgraduate counselor helps them if they have problems [with the transition]," Guerin said.

The 2017 Josephinum graduates are now in their freshmen years at Benedictine University, Northeastern Illinois University, Tuskegee University, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, University of Illinois campuses and many other schools.

Under its mascot, the Cougars, the school's athletes play basketball, volleyball, softball and soccer, along with participating in cheerleading, running and fitness clubs.

Ariel Maldonado, a senior and co-captain of the softball team with Torres, said she feels like "everyone is friendly," and she's not sure that is the case at other larger schools.

"We've had no drama. You can say 'hi' to anyone," Maldonado said.

The softball field under construction at Josephinum Academy. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

The Diamond Project through Cubs Charities helped to pay for the softball field.

In one classroom, students put their cellphones into this hanging shoe rack when they are in class or go to the bathroom. Another classroom uses a Wicker basket. [Photos by DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

The library

The computer lab

Josephinum students on a warm spring day [DNAinfo/Erica Demarest]

The sun-filled cafeteria

2011 Josephinum graduate Rakeeta Hampton now works at the school as an admissions counselor.

Scholarship and events coordinator Lindsay Bartlett (from left), Principal Mary Rose Guerin, School President Patti Tuomey and Josephinum senior Sophia Torres.

The gymnasium.

A outdoor learning garden and respite area.