Two years ago, Lachi Pokhrel attended school in a building made out of bamboo and mud. She and her classmates had no desks; they sat on a carpet and read textbooks printed in English.
Pokhrel’s parents were political refugees from Bhutan. Pokhrel spent the first 16 years of her life in Nepal, where she lived in a small tent with her family amidst a camp of other Bhutanese refugees.
Today, Pokhrel is a senior at St. Gregory the Great High School. She surfs the internet in the school’s 4-story building at 1677 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. She is Hindu at a Catholic high school.
“At first I didn’t know the difference between public and private, I didn’t even know what is a Christian,” said Pokhrel, who attended Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, a public school, before taking the St. Gregory entrance exam last year.
There are dozens of stories much like Pokhrel’s within the halls of St. Gregory, which educates 127 students from 22 countries and 10 different religions, according to Head of School Lori Deichstetter. Students also travel from across the wide cultural world of Chicago – members of the student body reside in 48 neighborhoods on the north, south and west sides of the city, some traveling more than two hours to attend the small private school in Andersonville every day.
However, students and faculty claim the diverse population at St. Gregory does not prevent communities from forming on campus. With a ratio of about one teacher for every 11 students in a classroom, one-on-one opportunities with advisors and classmates abound, allowing teenage students to blend into a new environment.
“The teachers are like not only teachers but an uncle or aunt,” said Henry An, a senior who moved to Lincolnwood from Seoul, South Korea at age 17. “My friends are like brothers or sisters.”
The scattered St. Gregory student body also brings a list of unique challenges for administrators. According to development director Mary Linder, 80 percent of the student body requires tuition assistance. Special needs students make up 21 percent of the student body. Stresses ranging from learning a new language and paying the $7,000 annual tuition to feeling isolated from classmates living in different neighborhoods fall into administrators’ hands.
“We’re dealing with kids who, in a lot of different ways, are really looking to change the course of their lives,” said George Isaacson, who spent 26 years teaching in the Chicago Public Schools before becoming the assistant principal of St. Gregory in July. “We have conversations about keeping them alive. There are conversations I’ve never had in my life.”
The school has not always faced such challenges. St. Gregory was intended as a neighborhood Catholic grade school and high school when it first opened as the first coed school in the Archdiocese of Chicago 74 years ago. The current building was constructed in 1955 and the high school saw its highest enrollment 18 years later when 500 students attended, according to the school’s website.
Significant changes have occurred in the past decade as St. Gregory extended its reach far beyond its immediate home in Edgewater. A charter school now rents the space that the since-closed St. Gregory grade school once occupied. Staff designed new programs to address language challenges and struggles for teens entering the workforce.
“St. Gregory appears to be one of the first catholic high schools that really has a focus on serving students of English language learning and students of special needs which traditionally have not been served in the catholic school system,” said Head of School Deichstetter, who has worked for nearly three decades with public schools and the Archdiocese of Chicago, which oversees the region’s catholic schools.
Yet perhaps the most drastic shift in recent memory took place during the summer before the current school year, when all but five faculty and staff were fired. According to development director Linder, the new staff was brought in to implement a new technology-based curriculum, but the widespread changes left the school with few employees connected to the institution’s past.
Turnover impacted both classrooms and administrative offices. The Head of School position was created to replace the former President-Principal leadership model, and Deichstetter received the task of rebuilding the school with a new staff.
“It was exciting that I got to bring on a brand new team and do all the interviews for all the positions,” Deichstetter said. “The challenges were that there was a lot to put in place in a very short period of time.”
Students, many of whom had already spent years building relationships with faculty, have not enjoyed the transition to a new administration this year. Several of St. Gregory’s unique programs, such as the Protégé Program that provides internships for juniors and seniors with a high GPA, were temporarily discontinued because the teachers in charge of the programs were no longer on campus.
Carl Powe, an 18-year-old senior and self-proclaimed all-star basketball player from Wicker Park, worked at the Bark Bark Club last year through the Protégé Program. He had planned to participate again his senior year to pursue his interests in working with animals, but focused instead on basketball after learning he would not be able to work with the program.
“It was like freshman year again,” the stocky center for the St. Gregory Greyhounds said. “This is the time we are supposed to relax but it was difficult because the teachers didn’t really know anything about us.”
Cardboard boxes and aimless shelves occupy new staff offices that were once closets, and teachers are still in the process of renovating their classrooms. Deichstetter said she hopes to have everything in place in the fall for the start of the upcoming school year. Although the transition has inconvenienced many students, Phuong Nguyen, a senior who emigrated from Vietnam three years ago without knowing any English, said she recognizes that she has overcome greater obstacles in the past.
“It was pretty tough and I felt like I started school again, but I’m a quick learner. I can get used to things.”