Nurturing the next generation
Though it’s a steamy, 90-degree June day in Chicago, Minerva Garcia-Sanchez (BA ’91) isn’t lacking for energy. Her words come fast and her voice crescendos time and again as she discusses her work with Chicago Public Schools (CPS). As chief of schools for CPS Network 7—one of 13 “mini-districts” in a vast urban school system catering to nearly 375,000 students across Chicago—Garcia-Sanchez oversees a collection of 27 schools on the city’s near Southwest Side, including iconic port-of-entry neighborhoods like Pilsen and Little Village filled with hope and ambition, courage and character.
Currently in her third year as network chief, Garcia-Sanchez functions much like a superintendent of schools, overseeing all curriculum, instruction, and learning as well as each school’s strategic plan and expenditures. It’s a taxing job with long hours, the typical bureaucratic hurdles of public sector life, and its share of emotional strain. But neither the complexity of the job nor Chicago’s summer heat on this particular day can stifle Garcia-Sanchez’s enterprising spirit.
“I grew up in this area and the children I serve today are me back in the day. I’m the voice for these children and uphold any programs that support them becoming active citizens of Chicago because that’s what I want more than anything.”
—Minerva Garcia-Sanchez (BA ’91)
Garcia-Sanchez’s passion for Chicago and educating its youth remains both personal and purposeful. A communications and psychology major at Loyola, she intended to become a lawyer focused on child advocacy before pivoting to bilingual education at the encouragement of a CPS principal she met during a school visit. She joined the school district 24 years ago and has never looked back, committed to developing a talented pipeline for her community and the city at large.
“The more we educate students, the more we encourage them to learn and dream, the better positioned they will be to make Chicago stronger,” said Garcia-Sanchez, who is also co-founder of the CPS Dream Fund Scholarship that awards college scholarships to “DREAMer” students from CPS schools. “The City of Chicago raised me, and anything that makes us stronger I’m excited to do.”
On Chicago’s academic scene, Garcia-Sanchez is far from the only Loyola alum motivating the city’s youth. CPS is filled with educators at every level who are leading classrooms and schools with the skills they gained at Loyola. Others, like Mary Kearney (MEd ’88, EdD ’99) and Jill Young (MA ’13, PhD ’16), are shaping Chicago’s educational environment beyond public schools’ doors.
Kearney, for example, spent the last seven years as associate superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, one of the nation’s largest private school systems with more than 200 schools and 76,000 students. As a senior administrator, Kearney helped foster a more coherent vision for the school system, one focused on academic quality and fidelity to Catholic values as a counter to the violence and inequity dampening Chicago’s star.
“We aimed to create safe, nurturing environments where kids could become active, contributing members to society,” said Kearney, who embraced a career in Catholic education as a way to live her Christian values and serve the faith.
At the archdiocese, Kearney supervised school turnaround programs to ensure marketplace viability and competitiveness, spearheaded the adoption of an accreditation process to demonstrate continuous improvement, and initiated a leadership academy that provided field experience to dozens of current and aspiring school principals. “I was driven to ensure that all students had options for a quality education, particularly in areas where that is not as accessible as it should be. Ultimately, that helps Chicago because it’s providing children a path to reach their potential,” she said.
More recently, Kearney accepted a position as chief academic officer with the Cristo Rey Network. A Catholic educational system designed to serve low-income youth, the Network includes some three-dozen schools across the U.S., including two in Chicago—the Cristo Rey flagship in Pilsen and Christ the King in the West Side’s Austin neighborhood.
Like Kearney and Garcia-Sanchez, Young embraces youth education as a vocation. The senior director of research and evaluation at After School Matters, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides summer and after-school programming to Chicago teens, Young explores ways to help youth thrive in the present and future.
“These Chicago teens are an asset, and our mission is to cultivate their interests and encourage them to become contributors right now,” Young said.
Headed by CEO and Loyola alumna Mary Ellen Caron (PhD ’04), After School Matters provided some 26,000 programs in the arts, sports, leadership, and STEM fields to more than 17,000 local teens during its most recent fiscal year. Programming, Young said, that helps teens explore and develop their talents while simultaneously cultivating their skills for college, the workplace, and beyond.
Overseeing the organization’s research and evaluation functions, Young has increasingly linked data to practice, including capturing feedback from more than 400 teens to shape programming, inform decision-making, and propel organizational impact.
When Young noticed male participation in After School Matters’ programs hovering at 40 percent, for example, she joined with the organization’s programming and development teams to boost those numbers. Together, the group secured external funding for more male-targeted programming, produced male-specific recruitment materials, piloted weekend-only programs, and revised program names and descriptions. As a result, After School Matters’ male participation rate has climbed to 45 percent in two years.
“And that’s important given the violence in Chicago and how valuable it is to show teens positive and productive alternatives,” said Young. “I’ve always had the mindset of trying to make the world a better place every single day. With After School Matters, we’re putting Chicago’s teens at the heart of everything we do and being a part of that effort is inspiring.”