Chicago Hope Academy puts faith, belief in service into practice

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CHICAGO — A West Side school is changing lives and taking its neighborhood back using a combination of education, athletics and faith. You could call it a story of redemption; or just a story of Hope.

Religious slogans cover the walls at Chicago Hope Academy, a choice that cost the high school millions in charter school funding. Also on the walls: the pennants of top-tier schools its graduates have attended.

Any time a visitor enters a classroom at the school, the whole class, just 15 students or so, jumps to its feet, and the student nearest the door tells you what they’re studying. There’s even an entrepreneurship program that has Chicago’s business elite lined up to help.

All of it, screaming out that something special is going on here.

It all started in 13 years ago, when Bob Muzikowski sold his business and bought a school. Then he hit up everyone he knew to help pay the bills. In Bob's case, "everyone" covers a lot of ground.

Among those friendships was a former classmate at Columbia University, former President Barack Obama, who stopped by the school before making his 2012 victory speech at McCormick Place to shoot some hoops.

“We got a call from secret service that the president wanted to play basketball in our gym for good luck," Bob said.

Sure enough, the presidential motorcade came and parked at the school for a short while, as Obama shot hoops with students.

"One of the things he asked me was, ‘Bob, what’s your secret sauce to having a great inner-city high school?’ and I said, ‘Barry, if you want to fix an inner-city school, put your own kids in it,” Bob said.

Which he did. He, his wife have seven children live a couple of blocks from the school.

Police records show there were three shootings within a square mile of the school last year, one of them fatal. This year, Hope’s football season was interrupted by gunfire September 29 when there was a shooting in nearby traffic, right in the middle of a game with Providence Catholic. The next two teams canceled their games by forfeit after the shooting, Bob said, describing it as a "dark time.”

"We’re in a league with all Christ-following schools and you choose not to come?” Bob said. "It’s what you read about. But I think as a people of faith, we’re supposed to come together then."

Eventually, they did. Football returned on October 27, and Hope ended the year on a positive note. Those ups and downs kind of come with the territory.

“We have young people in the community who all they see is violence. That’s what they’re gonna know. Chicago Hope is special because we show patience, we show love," Dean of Students Antwon Johnson said.

“We do have a unique opportunity to not just say, ‘alright, we’re gonna help you rise above your situation academically. But we’re gonna help you dig through what you’ve been through. And we’re gonna help you learn where hope is," Principal Alyssa Dons said. "That’s why we’re named ‘Hope,’ you know? Like, it’s a name for a reason.”

When you reach a certain age, walking the halls of a high school brings back all kinds of memories. But for Bob, who walks the school's halls every day, it’s not really about the memories anymore. He’s always thinking about the future.

That future includes a new state-of-the-art track on a rough-looking stretch of north Lawndale, that Bob hopes will one day host the Special Olympics. It's just part of a wider effort to build opportunities for kids that may not usually get them. He said when it comes to schools, magnets may provide opportunities for some students, but often kids who can't get access to them often get left behind.

“People have empathy and sympathy for low-income students who might not get as high a test score, but they’re not putting little missy and biff next to them for four years," Bob said. "The new God is, 'What’s best for my kid,' right?”

Bob knows a little bit about tough times himself. While bartending his way through college, he says he "overindulged a lot" over about five years.

“I got in a bar fight and ended up in jail. That’s actually the opening scene of the Keanu Reeves movie ‘Hardball.'"

After he was locked up for assault, Bob credits his strong Catholic faith, and A.A., with freeing him from a life consumed by drugs and booze, and setting him on a new path.

“I think we’re too much talk and not enough walk in western Christianity today," Bob said. "Our saying here is, ‘preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.’”

Every year, instead of having a prom, Hope’s entire senior class goes to Mexico to build houses for the poor. Doing the work that many feel called to do.

"Those are the neighbors I’m supposed to love as myself. And so Hope is just an outgrowth of that. A whole bunch of us, just drinking the kool-aide," Bob jokes.

Information on how to help support the Chicago Hope Academy Mexico Trip is available on GoFundMe