Updated: June 12, 2014 6:09AM
There’s a new school in town, a well-kept secret just north of Grant Park and behind the Aqua Tower at 225 N. Columbus, a development representing a $160 million investment by GEMS Education. GEMS, the world’s largest K-12 private school operator, based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, plans to open a 10-story building in early July for 660 students in “junior kindergarten” through grade 5, and a 16-story tower for grades 6-12 in fall 2016, where annual tuition ($33,000) is comparable to what it costs for a year at U of I in Urbana.
The GEMS launch follows a successful opening in October of a preschool in Lincoln Park. Former Roscoe Village resident Denise Gallucci, previously assistant superintendent at Augustus H. Burley Elementary, a Chicago Public Schools magnet school in Lake View, is CEO for GEMS Education-Americas and now a New Jersey resident. She left Chicago when her husband was offered a promotion in Connecticut, and she became superintendent of the Hartford, Conn., schools. She returns regularly to Chicago.
I grew up in Brooklyn. I remember being in my third-grade classroom, sitting in the second row, third seat, and my teacher was teaching. I looked at her and I can remember like it was yesterday, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ She had such grace and understanding. I saw her as such a beautiful human being. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’
Even as a child, my parents would joke that I’d look for problems to fix. I saw injustices in the world and I wanted to right them. I always appreciated my teachers.
I think of my fifth-grade teacher reading Edgar Allen Poe and how literature and poetry just came alive for me. She believed in me more than I believed in myself. And I thought of the privilege of doing for someone else what those teachers did for me.
Typically, educators come from long lines of educators. In my family, there were entrepreneurs and bankers. I am the only educator.
GEMS’ mission is to put high-quality education within the reach of every child, and I believe giving the gift of education to all children is the key that unlocks all doors.
We have a very strong scholarship and financial assistance program. What’s special about GEMS World Academy is its strong focus on building world citizens and helping children understand their place in the world and their responsibility to be a positive in the world.
When a 5-year-old enters our kindergarten, he or she instantly starts in videoconferences and working in the (Internet) cloud across continents with students in Dubai, Singapore, Etoy, Switzerland and our other locations so that this great big world becomes small.
We are partnering on a teacher innovation program to provide professional development to 100 teachers in Chicago. We are also offering a $50,000 Chicago Teacher Award. The deadline for applications has been extended to May 15. Anyone can nominate a teacher. If you are an excellent teacher or you know one, you can apply (chicagoteacheraward.com).
We’re also working in a very organized fashion with CPS, charter agencies and not-for-profits to deliver our promise (in the Clinton Foundation partnership) of one to 100.
We are developing plans to let the community access some of the facilities, including a theater, libraries, gyms, specialty labs, a digital theater and a rooftop playground.
I had an incredible [CPS] mentor, Barbara Kent. She was the principal. We ran the school together. We made every decision together. We were co-principals. [Then-Superintendent Arne Duncan] was such an inspirational leader. He would bring such smart people together in a room, ask people to highlight problems and facilitate the group. He would say, ‘You’re the experts. You know what to do.’ He made you believe you could do anything and there was no task too big that we couldn’t tackle together.
[Duncan’s] right hand, Barbara Eason-Watkins, the chief education officer, was one of the most incredible educators, humble women and most open to dialogue about the state of education.
I love the city, its people and its culture.