(Ed note: New photographs appended: image 1 by Sandy Wettig; 2 & 3 by Natalie Mine; 4 by Tatum Bartlett). Last Wednesday, Alexander Graham Bell School, located at 3730 N. Oakley Ave., bustled with parents and children alike. It was the last full day of school for the 2009?2010 school year, and also Serendipity Day, a special event where students cast votes to participate in a variety of sessions (a tire-changing class, candy sushi creations, a crepe station, and a circus performing class, to name a few). I made my way to the school office, where mothers and fathers were paying last-minute library fines, simultaneously dishing out questions to a seemingly assiduous office staff. Looking forward to a long wait, I was caught off guard when a voice called out, “Excuse me, are you being helped?” Looking up, I was met with an affable smile and gleaming blue eyes. I knew instantly that this was the “Mr. Guercio” I had come to see.
Drive down any street in the area, and all the For Sale signs include the words “BELL SCHOOL DISTRICT.” If you asked anyone in the neighborhood why this is, you’d get a single answer: “Principal Guercio.” June 30 marks Guercio’s retirement. ?After this day,? he told me, laughing, ?I will only be here when invited.? From the framed photographs of students that decorate his office walls, it’s apparent that he will always be a part of Bell. With his departure, Guercio leaves behind a legacy vested in the more than 1,700 graduates he has watched move on from the school.
Robert Guercio has been connected to Bell for 33 of its 93 years of existence: first, as a student at Bell, then as a summer school teacher, and finally, for the past 17 years, serving proudly as principal. Guercio began his career in the Chicago Public Schools some 36 years ago. He started as a teacher of visually impaired students, then for four years, served as assistant principal of Lincoln Elementary School. In 1986, he became the youngest person ever to serve as principal of Agassiz School, where he stayed until moving on to Bell at age 33. ?I definitely looked too young to be principal, and that first year was a lot about figuring things out,” Guercio said. “But I had a wonderful mentor. I learned back then that I am just a facilitator; I am here to serve the teachers.?
Over the years Guercio has served on the Mayor?s Task Force for Special Education (facilitating the inclusion of disabled students with their non-disabled peers), served as a LAUNCH principal mentor (helping to train future leaders for the Chicago Public Schools), and held the position of auxiliary president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, representing administrators from more than 30 schools. Additionally, he has worked closely with a number of community organizations?namely, the Lion?s Club, Northcenter Chamber of Commerce, and the Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club. In light of Guercio’s notable career and tireless dedication to the Chicago Public Schools (and to the field of education as a whole), Illinois Governor Pat Quinn recently visited Bell and proclaimed June 12, 2010, “Robert Guercio Day” in Illinois.
Bell hosts three programs: the neighborhood program, a regional gifted or options program, and a deaf program (the largest on the North Side of Chicago). Guercio is proud of his school. ?This group of parents, teachers and students?you can put them up against any school!? he said. ?It is truly hard to explain how rewarding of an experience it has been to be at Bell… The students? level of respect and social awareness, their motivation?it never ceases to amaze.”
As principal, Guercio gave tours of the school to prospective students and their parents every other week. He says he was always asked what type of high schools Bell grads attend. ?The answer was simple,? Guercio said. ?As long as they apply themselves, they are guaranteed to attend a selective enrollment high school; in fact, 80 percent of our graduating students this year are doing just that.? On that note, Guercio smiled. ?I have a great story for you,? he said. ?I had a dad call me last year to tell me that his son, and my former student, was going to be attending Yale that fall. Before I could share how happy I was to hear the good news, he said, ?And that?s not the best part. You know how he used to wait at the bus stop with the two other boys? Well, one is just finishing his first year at Yale and the other is going this fall as well.?? With that, Guercio let out a chuckle. ?Imagine that, three of my students, all from the same bus stop, all at Yale!?
Guercio is proud not only of his students? academic success, but also their social awareness. His seventh grade students shoveled snow for an entire winter, donating all proceeds of their efforts to victims of the tsunami. Another group of students organized a fundraiser after learning that a large number of girls in Africa are unable to attend school since their villages are without wells and they must walk miles to collect water for the families. The latter fundraising efforts resulted in wells placed in two villages. ?I cannot take credit for the sensitivity of these kids. I?m only a small part of it,” Guercio said. “Our teachers are truly committed to their kids. Most get here at 6:30 a.m. and don?t leave until 6:30 p.m. And the parents?like I already said, I have been so fortunate to have such a great group of supporters.?
Guercio?s departure is bittersweet. He is looking forward to spending time with his wife and their four children and four grandchildren. (He said his mother often reminds him in jest that it “doesn’t look good to have her youngest child retiring.”) Guercio said that the same pride he now feels for his grandchildren, he has felt for his students over the years, and although he will not be at Bell to greet them come September 7th, he is confident that his retirement could not have come at? a better time. Sandra Caudill, who has served as assistant principal at Bell for the past six years, will be taking over the reigns. ?Knowing that she is there makes it all that much easier to leave,” Guercio said. “She is ready.?
Despite the challenges facing Chicago Public Schools, Mr. Guercio is confident that his close-knit community of teachers, parents, and students will weather the storm. And I can find no reason to disagree: Robert Guercio is undoubtedly an example of the difference a dedicated principal can make.