Monday, April 13, 2009

The Blue Gargoyle Closes Its Doors

posted by Elizabeth Fama

On Wednesday evening (4/8/09) last week, the Blue Gargoyle (5638 S. Woodlawn Ave.) closed its doors. It had been struggling for the past several months with financial problems. In their last days there, staff members and tutors worked to place their students in alternative programs around the city.

Literacy on the South Side

While there are no specific data about literacy rates in Chicago, the 2000 census and 2005 census estimate do report education attainment levels (unfortunately, a high school diploma is not a guarantee of literacy). In two neighborhoods adjacent to Hyde Park (Woodlawn and Bronzeville), about 1 in 10 adults over age twenty-five never made it to 9th grade, and about a third never graduated from high school. The WBEZ series 50-50: The Odds of Graduating reports that barely 1/3 of current students at Robeson High School are on track to graduate.

Why the Blue Gargoyle was Unique

Blue Gargoyle offered day and evening classes in literacy and GED, one-on-one tutoring in a welcoming environment, and counseling services for individuals and families, all under one roof. There was a family literacy program, where parents pursued their GED classes and tutoring, while their infants, toddlers, and young children participated in early childhood education. Parents learned not only how to read to kids, but why it was important.

A young mother reads to her daughter at the Blue Gargoyle

A Bridge Between Communities

The Blue Gargoyle had a clearly defined mission -- one that I think is important for a neighborhood that blends a wealthier, intellectual community with a poorer community that is struggling with inadequate public schools. That's a loss for Hyde Park, and also for the University. Many of the volunteers were local professionals "giving back," and college and graduate students who got teaching and professional experience (along with a warm rapport with their students) by working there. Many of the counselors were Social Service Administration (SSA) students on internship.

Award Winning

The Illinois Secretary of State (who is also the State Librarian) gives out ten Spotlight Awards for outstanding literacy students and tutors. Blue Gargoyle students and tutors received between one and three of these nearly every year.

2008 Spotlight winners Mike Dellar (left) and Paul Strauss.

(Thanks to Betsy Rubin for chatting about the Blue Gargoyle and adult literacy with me. Betsy is the Adult and Family Literacy Specialist at Literacy Works Chicago.)


Richard Gill said...

Having tutored and taught at the Blue Gargoyle for a couple of years, I am sad to learn of its closing, but not surprised. Acknowledged - my time there was no more than four hours a week; most teachers (and some tutors) were there for around 20 hours a week, so I was something of an in-law, rather than a close family member. But I did get a good feel for the place.

The state funding (which apparently dried up and helped precipitate the closing) had tight strings attached...reporting, accounting, teacher training, required background checks and required yearly professional development hours for staff, and even prerequisite training for tutors, who were unpaid volunteers. This was layered on top of largely open enrollment, creating a sort of revolving door of students (age 17 to over 70) entering and leaving, and even disappearing for weeks at a time. Difficult.

The Gargoyle was a gentle and welcoming place, situated in a former house, so big and old that it had a separate stairway for servants. The lighting was bad, the temperature control was erratic, the place reverberated any time someone was on the staircases, rooms were used as-is (there was no money for reconfiguration), and there weren't enough chairs. Classrooms and offices were shoehorned into every square inch.

The Blue Gargoyle was a school, a social service center, a home away from home during the day, and even a safe haven for some. Perhaps the agency was trying to do more than should be reasonably expected while having to scratch for money even during so-called good times.

So much public money is wasted on crap. It could've kept worthwhile places like the Blue Gargoyle alive. It's a real shame.

Betsy said...

Thanks for posting about the Blue Gargoyle.

I just learned that yet another Blue Gargoyle student will receive one of 10 Spotlight on Achievement awards from the Secretary of State.

Her name is Lula Qualls. She was born in Mississippi in 1932 to a family of sharecroppers. Like many others, she was not able to complete her education and came north to work and raise a family.

Here is the essay Ms. Qualls wrote that helped her win the award:

By Lula Mae Qualls

It freed my way of thinking. Knowing the things I've always wanted, my every thought was learning to read! I feel like I am beginning to unload that heavy thought in my mind, because I feel I can learn to read.

It's like, now I see changes and it gives me hope; it encourages me. I used to beat myself up and get frustrated with myself and then, I would ask God to help me learn and do my best, my very best!

I have so many things I want to say and I want to learn how to say them. I've learned that reading expresses so many things inside of me that I would like to express.

I get tired and feel like giving up, but there hasn't been even one day when I didn't have someone at Blue Gargoyle to encourage me.

Now I'm reading more and more, I am enjoying more and more, especially with my tutor.

I have more to tell later.
Ms. Qualls's essay was published in The Gargoyle Gazette newsletter and reprinted on the Gargoyle's Facebook page.

Betsy's Family History Blogs said...

Check out the 2 letters to the editor in the 4/22 edition of the Hyde Park Herald.

You can go to p 4 of the edition at

Note that this link will always take you to the current week's paper so these 2 letters will be on view only temporarily at this link.

Reader said...

I just learned of the Blue Gargoyle closing. I am a 32 y/o AAF who graduate from CPS schools and I graduated from NIU. I remember in high school (South Shore) struggling with chemistry and algebra. My mother, who was not college educated, called the Alderman's office and was delighted to find a place that tutors for FREE! My times there were incredible. I remember my tutors, I only had two, were both UChicago graduates who inspired me to dream. I remember one tutor who carried two bookbags. When I asked her why she replied "I have to go to Med school". She did and then I was referred , by the Director, to an incredible tutor who spoke volumes to my intellectual development. He graduated from Exeter and worked as an Actuary downtown. I remember marveling over those words. The Blue Gargoyle was integral in my development as a civic-minded intellectual who cherishes diversity and experiences. If I had the money I would donate. Fortunately, I have inspiration (Thanks Blue Gargoyle!) and time to volunteer to programs whose mission and reach in the community are similar.

San Francisco Psychologist said...

I worked at the Blue Gargoyle during my entire undergraduate time (1984-1988) at the University of Chicago. I directed a peer counseling program at Kenwood High School through the Blue Gargoyle. It was a great program that helped me and many students at Kenwood. I "grew up" to become a psychologist in San Francisco and I know there were a number of peer counselors that we trained and peer counselees that we served who also benefited tremendously from this program. The Blue Gargoyle gave to us all and asked for very little or nothing in return. It is with great sadness that I learn of its demise. It will be missed in the community. RIP!