George Comer ’68 had made the trip from Gary, Ind., to Grand Rapids with his family many times before he enrolled at Calvin. In none of those trips, though, had he ever visited the college.
“I figured that if the city of Grand Rapids had a good representation of blacks, there would be that kind of representation at the school,” Comer explained. “Well, that turned out not to be the case.”
One of three black students on campus in the fall of 1964, Comer decided he could be educated in a dimension he hadn’t expected. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I can learn more here about what the concerns and challenges and issues are for people different from me.’ As a result, after college, whenever I went for interviews or was in an unfamiliar setting, I always felt so comfortable.”
After graduation, Comer went back to Gary to marry his childhood sweetheart and to teach English and Spanish, speech and drama in his high school alma mater. He taught for just six years before becoming a building administrator at a middle school and high school. For the past 34 years, he’s served the Gary Community Schools in several administrative capacities, at present as the district’s federal programs director.
That’s a lot of years devoted to urban public schools, years when enrollments at those schools nationwide have declined precipitously. As in other cities, charter schools have drawn a number of students out of Gary’s public schools.
“Somehow parents feel that all their problems are going to be fixed if they put their kids in charters, instead of seeing that little really changes unless there’s parent involvement,” Comer said.
Because he wants to see his students thrive, Comer has created programs to encourage parent involvement in all Gary’s public schools. For example, each elementary school employs parents to assist parents. “They spend 100 percent of their time greeting parents who come to the school, calling those who don’t and working with their concerns,” Comer said.
As parent involvement has improved, so has student performance. “Some of our schools were not meeting the No Child Left Behind program measures,” Comer said. “Scores have improved dramatically, though we still have a long way to go.” He added that Gary has the top elementary school in the state.
It’s still a challenge to get parents involved. “When we can’t go in and change a home environment, what we can do is keep youngsters with us longer in the day and provide wholesome, supervised, focused activities,” Comer said. “As other districts have cut their enrichment programs, we’ve maintained and strengthened ours.”
That includes summer enrichment programs, such as Competitive Edge, which lets high school students attend science classes at Indiana University’s branch campus in Gary. And not just the strong students. “We make sure we reach out to students who are struggling and impress upon their parents what an opportunity this is.”
Comer wants “as many Gary public school students as possible to go off to college.” To Calvin College, too. Each fall, Comer sees to it that the district provides a bus to take 20 to 30 seniors to a Fridays at Calvin event. Before they leave Gary, Comer gives them the straight story. “I tell them Calvin is conservative, that it has a strong academic program and that it will nurture their faith. I also tell them that, coming out of a predominately black school and community, it will give them a tremendous opportunity for growth in terms of their ability to understand others. In other words, I tell them my story.”George Comer invites any alumni in the Greater Gary area to attend the district’s spectacular Theatre Guild Show at 7 p.m. March 18, 2009.
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