In Partnership with the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Initiative Aims to Increase the Number of High-Quality, Affordable Pre-K Programs Available in Underserved Communities

(CHICAGO) – Big Shoulders Fund is excited to announce that it has received a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation to fund an early childhood education initiative aimed at improving access to high-quality prekindergarten (Pre-K) in the Englewood and Little Village communities.

The initiative will focus on five schools in the Big Shoulders Fund network – Academy of St. Benedict the African and Visitation Catholic School in Englewood and Epiphany Catholic School, Our Lady of Tepeyac Elementary School, and St. Agnes of Bohemia School in Little Village – due to the significant enrollment declines in Pre-K3 and Pre-K4 classrooms these schools experienced as a result of the loss of Pre-School for All Funding (PFA) in 2019.

“We’re extremely grateful for the consideration and generosity the Robert R. McCormick Foundation Board of Directors has demonstrated in awarding us this important grant,” said Josh Hale, President and CEO of Big Shoulders Fund. “Preschool is the gateway to a child’s academic journey, and this initiative is an important step towards increasing capacity, enhancing the quality of programming, and ensuring that parents and guardians in these under-resourced communities have access to the best academic option for their children.”

The initiative will include measures to increase Pre-K access for children and families, including a renewable scholarship, resources for staffing and classroom expansion, and academic and operational support provided by Big Shoulders Fund. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation First Steps Scholarship will be provided to Pre-K3 and Pre-K4 students in the amount of $2,000 per year, renewable for up to two years. Through these efforts, Big Shoulders Fund hopes to add 110 children to Pre-K programs at these schools by the 2024-25 school year, doubling current PreK enrollment.

“The mission of Big Shoulders Fund is very much in line with our work at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, where we invest in organizations in Chicago working to build thriving communities where all individuals have the resources and opportunities to succeed without regard to ZIP Code,” said Tim Knight, President and CEO of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. “Early childhood education is a critical building block that sets students up for success throughout their academic journey and personal development. We’re thrilled to provide this grant to help enhance the quality of early childhood education in communities that have historically suffered from underinvestment and help put students on a path to lifelong success.”

The expansion model will also include measures to minimize risk for schools as they increase staffing and open classrooms to accommodate new student enrollment, including annual grants to schools to cover the cost of opening additional classrooms, maintaining student-to-teacher ratios as the number of students enrolled grows and ensuring the successful recruitment and retention of quality educators and staff members. Over the course of three school years, the focus schools are projected to expand Pre-K programming by adding staff in all five schools and adding classrooms in four of the five schools.

“Thanks to this exciting and impactful grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, we are afforded an opportunity in this uncertain economic environment to guarantee a quality early childhood education for our youngest students,” said Jennifer Farrand, Principal of Academy of St. Benedict the African (ASBA). “This money will be used to change children’s lives. Of note, we have enrolled twenty-five new preschoolers and have opened a new classroom and we hope to welcome at least ten more preschoolers this school year. I know our school makes a difference, and we cannot do it alone!”

Families that are interested in learning more about this initiative and applying for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation First Steps Scholarship can visit: (English) or (Spanish).

Gerald and Jennifer Beeson: The Beeson Scholarship

Gerald and Jennifer Beeson: The Beeson Scholarship

Every quarter, Gerald Beeson digs through a stack of progress reports, attendance records, and report cards to analyze the performance of some important individuals: the 80 students at Big Shoulders Fund schools who are part of the Beeson Scholarship program, established by Gerald and his wife, Jennifer.

If Gerald finds any student struggling, he and Jennifer develop a plan to boost the student’s performance. The plan may entail extra tutoring or perhaps a one-on-one talk. “We want to make sure these kids stay on the right path,” said Jennifer, who regularly visits the scholars. “If we see a math grade drop, we go right in. Is the student able to improve it on his or her own? Or is tutoring needed?”

The Beesons’ approach is hands-on and proactive because they’ve set big goals for the middle schoolers who enter the program. “We’re really eager to see where these kids end up in college,” commented Jennifer.

The Beeson family has strong connections to Catholic schools. Gerald is a product of Chicago Catholic schools, having graduated from St. Gall on the city’s Southwest Side before moving on to Marist High School, then earning a four-year full academic scholarship to DePaul University. Jennifer is a former Catholic school teacher, and their four children now attend Catholic schools.

“I strongly believe you’re a product of the people who have helped you along the way,” said Gerald, now chief operating officer at Citadel. For that reason, he and Jennifer wanted to find ways to give back to the programs and schools that led them to success in life. The couple started with a scholarship program at Marist in honor of Gerald’s late father, a longtime Chicago police officer who passed away in 2004.

BSF Besson_0101The couple turned to Big Shoulders to expand their efforts, creating the Beeson Scholarship for students at five Big Shoulders Fund schools where they also had personal connections, such as St. Symphorosa, where Jennifer taught. The scholarship starts with students in fifth grade and is renewable through high school for those who maintain a B average and attend a high school in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The Beesons provide additional funding to students who attend Marist due to their family’s history with the school.

The scholars come together around a service project each year to teach them the importance of contributing to the community. One recent project involved making blankets and cards to decorate the NICU at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. “We are trying to show them a lot of simple ways you can pay it forward,” Jennifer explained.

Faith Gilliam, now a junior at Marist, started as a Beeson Scholar at St. Walter. One year, Jennifer organized an event where the scholars volunteered at another school. The experience stuck with Gilliam and motivated her to collect school supplies to share with needy students. “The fact that (the Beesons) are so nice and generous and involved with the community really inspired me to become successful and help out other people who need it,” said Gilliam, who is looking at colleges with hopes of becoming a nurse practitioner.

The couple also created a code of conduct which they expect the scholars to follow, emphasizing the importance of discipline, focus, and always trying your best. A celebration at the end of the year unites all the scholars from the various schools. Jennifer wants the students to leave knowing they have been chosen for something special and “are going to do great things.”

Richard Guerin, former principal of St. Bede the Venerable, one of the Beeson Scholarship schools, said Jennifer quickly became “one of us” through her regular visits to the school. With the children, she is generous with hugs and serious about asking how they are doing. “The Beeson Scholarships made such a difference to the families and the students. It was so much more than just the financial support. It was an honor,” he stated.

Gerald said the personal approach to the scholarship program works for the couple, so it is not “just this credit on their tuition statement once a year,” he said. “There is a name and a face to it. Hopefully, as they go on to bigger and better things, they’ll have the opportunity to go back and do the same thing for someone else because it was made available to them at a time when their families needed it.”

As Jennifer sees it: “I always say to the kids, ‘Our journey doesn’t end after you graduate. We’re always here. We’re the people you’ve got in your back pocket. You need advice, we’re here to help you achieve the goals you want to achieve.’”


Glenn and Christine Kelly

Glenn and Christine Kelly

Maternity BVM Patrons, Members of the Joseph Society, and Scholarship Sponsors

As he drove to Maternity BVM School for his regular visits, Glenn Kelly couldn’t help but notice the large broken clock in front of the school, perpetually freezing the time at 3:30.

The clock, which broke sometime in the 1960s, became a symbol to Glenn of some of the challenges the school and its supporters, including himself and wife Christine, faced in trying to reinvigorate the Humboldt Park school that was once on the verge of closing.

But through their dedication to the Big Shoulders Fund’s Patrons Program and a solid partnership with Maternity BVM, the broken clock is gone, enrollment is up, work is underway to create a new science lab, and the school has a clear mission and vision with the Kellys’ full support.

The Kellys became Patrons at Maternity BVM initially with Ken and Amy Viellieu more than a decade ago, hoping to have a more direct relationship with a school and its families. Soon, they found themselves wanting to do even more. The Kellys established their own scholarship program to help Maternity BVM students and pledged to make a planned gift to Big Shoulders to support the organization long into the future.

The Kellys’ involvement with Big Shoulders stretches back to the organization’s early years, with Christine serving on the Board of Directors and chairing the board’s Patrons Program. “What I liked about Cardinal Bernardin’s thinking at the inception, and what Big Shoulders has carried on since then, is the idea that the schools are open to anybody, whether they’re Catholic or not,” noted Christine, who retired as a principal with William Blair & Co. The couple began contributing because they both felt strongly that education was a critical door to open in helping change the opportunities available to children in poverty, and the graduation rates and success evidenced at the inner-city schools was exceptional.

The appeal of the Patrons Program was that it allowed Christine and Glenn to become more engaged with a specific school, assisting the principal and Maternity BVM to improve its marketing efforts, establish a computer lab, and bring in new resources. The Kellys said they’ve been excited to engage at the school level.

The Kellys see the different initiatives of Big Shoulders coming together at Maternity BVM with positive results. “You link them all together like we’re trying to do at Maternity BVM, and the impact is phenomenal,” said Christine. They’re working to bring a new science lab to the school, an effort further inspired after a trip to Big Shoulder’s Brush Creek Ranch summer camp in Wyoming.

“We had a couple of our students go out there, and we were amazed at the change when they came back,” Christine commented. She recalled one student in particular, a tall young man with an imposing presence who was actually quite shy. He had barely left his neighborhood, let alone been on a plane. When they talked to him beforehand, he was quite nervous at the thought of it all. But, after a week of riding horses in the wilderness, conducting science experiments, and being pushed out of his comfort zone, “he came back a changed, confident young man,” she said.

Through their scholarship program, the Kellys take on four new sixth graders each year, providing financial support through the students’ eighth grade year. The couple visits with the students throughout the year to talk about their future and to work with them on interview skills. They also take the scholarship recipients on an annual field trip. “It’s wonderful to watch the kids grow,” she said.

The Kellys became members of the Joseph Society, a group of people who have made planned gifts to further the special mission of the Big Shoulders Fund for years to come. Glenn, a retired R.R. Donnelley executive, said the couple established a planned gift to Big Shoulders because the organization’s impressive results evidenced by strong statistics don’t lie. Christine added, “When you walk into these schools and you feel the safety and care and the love these children get, it’s incredibly compelling. This is a great investment for the future of Chicago, and a wonderful opportunity to both provide a path for a child and invest in Chicago’s future workforce.”

The Gallagher Scholarship

The Gallagher Scholarship

Each year since 1994, the Gallagher Family and Big Shoulders Fund have randomly selected 10 elementary schools to each nominate five rising fifth graders for the Gallagher Scholarship, which is renewable through 12th grade. To date, the Gallagher Scholarship Program has sponsored more than 1,100 students.

Principals at Big Shoulders schools are thrilled when they are selected, knowing the difference this scholarship can make for families at their schools.

The Gallagher Scholarship is one of Big Shoulders’ longest running scholarship programs and has contributed to a number of great outcomes for students. Approximately three out of four Gallagher Eighth Grade Scholars choose to continue on to college-prep, Catholic high schools annually, which helps set them up for long-term success. In the class of 2014, 88 percent of Gallagher Scholars enrolled in college this past fall, at a rate well ahead of their local and national peers. Scholars enrolled at institutions such as DePaul University, Holy Cross College, University of Illinois, and Swarthmore College.

“I think the ‘secret weapon’ of the program is the Code of Conduct for Gallagher Scholars written by my father,” said Bob Gallagher, Jr. “It’s an 11-point program for success in school, but also applies to whatever the students choose to pursue after graduation.”

Originally nominated for the Gallagher Scholarship as a fifth grader at St. Helen Elementary School, Erik Almazan graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep in 2013. He continued on to the University of Chicago, class of 2017.

Almazan explained, “The Gallagher Scholarship was very important because it allowed me to go to Catholic school and grow not only socially and intellectually, but also spiritually. Growing spiritually is important and unique to Catholic education and is part of what the Gallagher Scholarship provided to me.”

The Gallagher Scholarship Program continues on in perpetuity thanks to the generosity of the late Mr. and Mrs. Robert E. Gallagher and the leadership of their children Bob and Jane Gallagher, Richard O’Malley and Anne Gallagher O’Malley, Bill and Cissy Glading, and Dan Goese and Kate Gallagher. The impact of this family is affecting students’ lives every day.