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Warm thoughts about Gregory Middle School
By Joni Hirsch Blackman | Columnist

Stephen Severson

 

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Published: 10/18/2008 12:06 AM

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I can't remember where I first saw the news about Gregory Middle School's No Child Left Behind - Blue Ribbon School award, but I distinctly remember my reaction: What a perfect choice!

I have a warm spot in my heart for Gregory Middle School - the kind of place usually reserved for a school you yourself went to, or for a very kind old friend you are especially fond of. But as much as I've liked each school my kids have attended, there was always something extra-special about Gregory - and it is something you hear, over and over, from parents whose kids have gone there.

From the beginning of the 10 years I had kids at Gregory, I knew it was a wonderful place to get through those tumultuous middle grades. But as the years went on, I often heard stories that reinforced my feeling - particularly one from an acquaintance who does not live in the neighborhood and had a yearlong job working there. She sought me out one day to tell me of her experiences at Gregory and to let me know how lucky I was that my kids went there.

Principal Steve Severson, in his fifth year at Gregory, remembers when he left his old school in Bradley, Ill., and researched whether he'd like working at Gregory. He knew the school had good test scores, but people kept telling him Gregory was "just a little different."

"The difference is that family kind of feel. I tell people all the time, - when I got here, people kept saying, 'Gregory's different' and I'd ask, 'what do you mean?' and they'd say, 'I don't know.' But you know, it is a different kind of place.

"We talk a lot here about family, about doing things the Gregory way. The more we talk about it, the more people believe it. The other day, a kid did something and then apologized to me and said, 'I know, Mr. Severson, we don't do it that way here.'"

I think about all the brou-ha-ha over the difference in the physical buildings of Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley high schools and it always has made me think of Gregory and how it and Hill Middle School are housed in undeniably older buildings than other Indian Prairie Unit District 204 middle schools.

When I've visited the newer middle schools, I have been as impressed as anyone with their lovely surroundings, their cool modern "class houses," their spaciousness, sparkling cafeterias (compared to Gregory's multipurpose room) and bright gymnasiums. I remember even noticing one school's beautiful flooring.

But none of the cosmetic appeal was remotely tempting. I loved having my kids at small, old, tucked-away-in-a-neighborhood Gregory. Because Gregory isn't a building any more than any school is. Gregory is its students and its staff.

"We're down-to-earth people. Our neighborhoods here are quiet kind of places," Severson said. "It's more homey here. That's part of why we do so well. And the staff here is perfect for the kids we have."

I've long considered Gregory's staff to be one in a million.

Severson explains, "the staff here is forever reflecting on 'how am I teaching?' and 'how can I do it better?'"

The qualities that make Gregory teachers unusual are the usual comments you'd make about good teachers: they take time for their students, they are enthusiastic, they are caring and helpful. But perhaps the one over-and-above thing that always came across was Gregory teachers honestly enjoy middle schoolers. That respect and affection can be felt in every corner of the building. The slogan out front is "Where Kids Come First," and the Gregory staff exemplifies that every day.

"You're always learning from people in this place, even me," Severson said. "We have so many good conversations about teaching and learning."

Severson and the inimitable Tim Higgins, current lead teacher who has taught at Gregory since it opened in 1987 and whose social studies students recall his memorable classes and teaching style long after they've graduated, leave soon for Washington, D.C. They'll attend a conference of Blue Ribbon Schools and accept the award, which is being given to just 41 middle schools in the country and 320 schools in total.

Higgins "is kind of the heart and soul of this place," Severson said. "He epitomizes this place - he has a good heart, he's conscientious, he cares about kids. People forget, it's not all about academics."

With them in spirit, no doubt, will be two other Gregory legends, without which no discussion of Gregory's aura would be complete: Greg Fischer, Gregory's first and only principal until his retirement in 2004 and the name that will adorn 204's newest middle school next year, and Kiki LaBianca, the Project Arrow teacher who also opened the building and is currently on medical leave.

The banner they'll bring home to mark this new honor - Gregory Middle School previously was selected as an Illinois Horizon School and as a Demonstration School by the Association of Illinois Middle Schools - will be but a small token of the depth of feeling its community has for this extraordinary school.

• Joni Hirsch Blackman writes about Naperville twice a month in Neighbor. E-mail her at jonihb@aol.com.