Go to Top



In 1929, the cornerstone was laid for an impressive edifice that was erected on Central Park Boulevard, between Adams and Monroe Streets in Chicago. With its stately façade and high parapets, it stood like a castle, overlooking Garfield Park. The large building was needed to accommodate the growing student body of Providence High School, the all-girls Roman Catholic school operated by the Sisters of Providence. Not far away, on Madison Street and Kildare Avenue, stood the flourishing all-boys St. Mel High School, operated by the Christian Brothers. It was not until the 1960s that the enrollment for both schools began to dwindle. After the riots that followed the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., East Garfield Park was devastated, prompting many residents to leave the community. With their ever-decreasing enrollment, the two schools were combined, housed in the Providence building.


In 1969, the school was threatened by drugs, crime, and violence. Gangs recruited new members, intimidated students and teachers, set fires, and organized both sit-ins and walk- outs. The Sisters of Providence and the Christian Brothers, however, continued to teach the students who wanted to learn.


When Paul J. Adams III arrived at Providence St. Mel (PSM) in 1971, he filled the role of interim guidance counselor. At the end of the year, Adams resigned. However, PSM was not ready for him to leave: The principal, Mr. Walter Watson, called and offered Adams his own position as the head of the school. Adams accepted, hoping he could help the struggling school and the students. Help is exactly what he brought, both ideological and practical.


In the fall of 1972, Mr. Adams called the student body to the auditorium. As the new principal of PSM, he announced several new rules, including the prohibition of not only gangs and drugs, but also gambling, and graffiti, stealing, and fighting. Any students who did not comply with the new regulations were asked to leave. After setting these new guidelines, Mr. Adams promised students that if they stayed, followed the rules, and worked hard, they would earn the opportunity to succeed not only in college, but beyond.


Over the next few years, Mr. Adams worked to eradicate the dangerous distractions that were keeping students from an education: He raised expectations and taught students to believe in their potential in spite of the difficulties of their surroundings. His efforts paid off: In 1974, 78% of PSM graduates enrolled in college; in 1975, 88%. By 1978, 100% of graduating students enrolled in college.


Adams’ constant focus and reason for strictness at PSM were “to break the desperate cycle of poverty and generational welfare, [and to use] education to get our youth out of economic depression and into college.” To achieve this vision, Adams took on various roles in order for the school and the students to succeed. Adams felt compelled to patrol the surrounding area himself—during after-school activities and when his students were traveling home.


Mr. Adams’ job was not limited to academics, however. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Mr. Adams’ self-subscribed duties also included building repair and maintenance. He often put in extra hours of work after the students had gone home to keep the building a warm learning environment for the students. Also on his to-do list was preparing lunches in the cafeteria every day in order to keep costs down.


Despite the improving academic performance and increasing college matriculation rate, the Archdiocese of Chicago considered closing the school throughout the 1970s due to a lack of enrollment and rising costs. Steadily, they decreased their subsidy. However, between 1971 and 1978, Adams helped to significantly increase private contributions to the school fund. Here, Adams runs a bingo game in the PSM cafeteria.


Even with the extra efforts to raise additional funding, the Archdiocese planned to close the school. They officially severed ties with PSM at midnight on July 2, 1978. The next day, Mr. Adams held a press conference, in which he thanked John Cardinal Cody and the Archdiocese for their past support, and then announced that PSM would stay open for the coming school year as an independent school.


In what is now considered an historic effort, the staff, students, parents, and friends of PSM, under the leadership of Mr. Adams, and with much media exposure, including articles in Time, People, Ebony and The New York Times, raised $160,000 to open the school in the fall of 1978. Thankfully, the Sisters of Providence chose to support PSM and sold Adams the building.


The following year proved to be filled with challenges, including an ever-deteriorating building. The paint was peeling and the roof was leaking, but the quality 1980 education continued. Adams stood firm, telling the Chicago Tribune in June 1979, “If this school was located in hell, I would keep it going.” He had promised from the beginning that the school would remain open as an independent private school, and he was determined to keep his commitment.


PSM continued to hold its students to high academic standards and to praise the achievements of those who were excelling. In addition, vocational classes such as cooking and sewing were eliminated, while physics, calculus, and business courses were added to enhance and strengthen the college- preparatory curriculum.


In 1982, NBC reporter and Today Show contributor Mike Leonard, a Chicagoan, came to PSM after seeing an ad in the Wall Street Journal. He interviewed Mr. Adams, as well as other faculty members and current students. He came to share PSM’s inspiring story, its compelling educational mission, and its resolute commitment to remain open. Leonard’s piece aired, giving PSM much-needed national exposure.


One viewer was so moved by the Today Show segment that he wanted to see PSM for himself: President Ronald Reagan twice visited the school, first in 1982 and again in 1983, proclaiming it to be a “shining light” and suggesting that all schools should be run the same way.


The attention that these two highly publicized events brought PSM was absolutely necessary. The building was in desperate need of immediate repairs. Classrooms were unusable, ceilings had gaping holes, and some walls were buckling. Additional fundraising through corporations, foundations, and generous individuals was the solution for PSM’s urgent needs. Such generosity helped to keep PSM a beacon of hope for so many young lives.


With help from many benefactors, the auditorium, physics lab, several classrooms and the cafeteria were renovated. The computer lab was expanded and the exterior of the building was tuck-pointed. These renovations allowed the faculty of PSM to continue to focus on educating determined, hardworking students.


In 1985, the varsity boys’ basketball team made headlines when it captured the IHSA State Championship (Class A) title after setting an Illinois record by appearing in the state finals four years in a row. Finishing the 1985 season with a 31-3 record, the Knights were led by center Lowell Hamilton who was named Player of the Year by the Chicago Sun-Times and played in the McDonald’s All- American game that spring.


In 1990, PSM’s Summer Opportunity of A Lifetime (SOAL) program began, which has allowed students to gain valuable experiences outside of the classroom by participating in various academic and enrichment programs all over the world. Soon after, United Airlines pledged to provide vouchers for airfare to all PSM students participating in SOAL. Since then, students have traveled all over the United States and overseas, experiencing many cultures and becoming globally competitive.


In 1993, McDonald’s began a partnership with PSM, yielding PSM half of all the profits from a new fast food restaurant on the West Side. In 1995, McDonald’s opened a location in the PSM cafeteria. Mr. Adams, as always, was very active in day- to-day operations. Although the partnership lasted only a few years, the renovated space now serves as PSM’s cafeteria.


Mr. Adams’ vision included adding a middle and lower school to PSM. By 1993, PSM had expanded to include grades 1 through 12. By adding the lower school, PSM can offer a college- preparatory education to younger students and build the strong academic foundation for later success in high school and at the university level.


Third Semester, PSM’s summer school program, began in 1994. It is designed to prepare students for the rigorous curriculum they will encounter during the school year. Unlike many college-preparatory schools, PSM accepts students who score as low as the 25th percentile on standardized tests or who are two to three grade levels behind their peers. Through the summer program, students are brought up to par and are prepared to compete with their classmates.


The Summer of 1996 marked an important new chapter in the history of PSM: Mr. Adams hired Ms. Jeanette DiBella. By evaluating the curriculum school-wide and aligning it to state and national standards, Ms. DiBella led PSM to increase test scores 14 points in less than three years. Currently, PSM scores 28 points above the national norm, in the 78th percentile, and has an average ACT of 23.


In 2000, PSM’s lower school expanded further to include Kindergarten. Setting high standards beginning at the earliest stages builds the foundation on which students can continue to succeed throughout the rest of their academic career. A college-preparatory education begins with our youngest students, who are told from their very first day at PSM that they are preparing for college.


Providence Englewood Charter School opened in the fall of 2006 in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. The goal was to replicate the proven model already created at Providence St. Mel. Within the first year, test scores rose 40% and continued to improve over the next five years.


The Providence Effect, a documentary celebrating the academic accomplishments of PSM, was released in 2009. The film documents the school’s model and history. It won many awards, including Best Documentary at the Omaha Film Festival, Most Inspirational Documentary at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival, and Audience Choice: Best Documentary at the Lake County Film Festival.


In his book On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character, published in 2010, noted education researcher Dr. Samuel Casey Carter selected PSM out of 3,500 schools as one of the nation’s best. After 10 years of research in the United States, he chose PSM as one of the 12 finest schools.


As of 2011, Ms. DiBella officially became the Chief Educational Officer of the Jay Pritzker Academy (JPA) in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a school that closely follows the PSM instructional model. Trained by Ms. DiBella, the JPA teachers are proving the effectiveness of this model, and their students are thriving and excelling in the productive learning environment that this model provides.


Over the last several decades, PSM has given thousands of students the opportunity to achieve and succeed. After their careers at PSM, these graduates have gone on to attend college, pursue graduate degrees, and flourish in productive and satisfying careers. The educational environment and high academic standards established at PSM continue through the dedicated work of Mr. Adams, Ms. DiBella, the school’s leadership team, and its talented faculty.