Success Stories

Patron, Principal Working to Transform St. Ethelreda School

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

After a successful career as the co-founder of a thriving software company, Bill Krieger wanted a new challenge that would test his entrepreneurial skills while making an impact on a charitable cause.

It didn’t take him long to decide that Chicago’s Big Shoulders Fund (BSF) was the place to go.

Krieger was attracted to BSF’s Patrons Program, which allowed him to sponsor a high-need school by really rolling up his sleeves to make improvements there. He is in his second year of an initial three-year commitment, and has pledged a total of $300,000 in financial support.

“I was drawn to Big Shoulders because of the results they’ve had. Their stats on college enrollment and graduate rates are impressive,” he said. “… And I also knew any money I would give would go directly to the school. Its use would be directed by me and the principal. It’s very entrepreneurial. For me, it was an ideal situation.”

St. Ethelreda Catholic School in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham community on the far south side recently set a goal to become a premier math and science school. Its principal, Denise Spells, is dynamic and open to change. The school serves roughly 220 students, nearly all of them living in poverty.

Krieger figured it was the perfect place to make an impact.

With Krieger’s financial support, St. Ethelreda set up its first full-scale computer lab. In his first year, Krieger also spent several days per week at the school, helping train teachers in computer skills. He transformed the school website, encouraging teachers to post regular updates on their classroom projects. He also researched online learning programs and worked with Ms. Spells and her staff to introduce an online program that enhances the students’ regular curriculum.

The patron support also helped St. Ethelreda hire its first part-time marketing director to help build enrollment. Rather than losing students, St. Ethelreda has maintained enrollment for the past several years.

Krieger works closely with Principal Spells, who welcomes his input, energy and ideas. Spells has been a principal at St. Ethelreda for 17 years. While it was new to have someone so intimately involved in her school, she was never threatened by it.

“He’s in this to win,” Spells said of Krieger. “He’s just a very hands-on person. … And he has really taken all of our teachers to the next level in technology. He continually pushes me to a new level.”

Spells said Krieger’s entrepreneurial spirit inspired the staff to think of new ways to forge and enhance partnerships. A chance meeting with the president of Benedictine University in Lisle, for example, spurred on Spells to form a stronger alliance with the university.

Benedictine’s president, William Carroll, has offered a full, four-year tuition scholarship to all St. Ethelreda graduates who maintain a 3.0 grade point average in high school and pledge to become teachers in high-need schools. Briana Holland is one student taking advantage of the scholarship at Benedictine this year, and Spells expects this program to grow in the future. Benedictine is also sending its student teachers to work and volunteer at the school.

Holland, a sophomore at Benedictine, said she was amazed by how much the teaching staff took her under their wing at St. Ethelreda. Even after Holland  graduated and went on to Mother McAuley High School, Spells tracked her down to encourage her to apply to the Benedictine scholarship.

“I know it sounds cliché but everything I am is because of St. Ethelreda,” Holland said. “If she (Principal Spells) ever saw me slipping, she would say something. She always holds me to high standards.”
The Patrons Program is a brilliant way to capitalize on the energy and staff dedication that has existed at St. Ethelreda for decades.

“I think the secret sauce with Big Shoulders is this entrepreneurial bent. They’ve found patrons and donors who are actively working with individual schools to keep them open,” Krieger said. “… Once you see yourself as a start up, then you know you have to sell your own product and you can’t rely on someone else to fix it for you.”

Current students and parents at St. Ethelreda say it’s clear there’s a renewed spirit at the school with the help of Big Shoulders.

Jenna Perryman, for instance, is one of the school’s most recent success stories. She scored extremely high on the Chicago public schools’ entrance test for selective high schools and was accepted to Whitney Young and Jones College Prep. However, Jenna decided instead on Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, a Catholic girls school.

Jenna’s mom, Phyllis Perryman, credits St. Ethelreda in bringing her daughter along. “Catholic schools are more nurturing,” she said. “All the teachers know her by name. I see the work Principal Spells and her staff put into the school. They are not there for the paycheck. They’re truly there for the kids.”

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