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Providence St. Mel Student Earns 36 on ACT

This article was originally published in the Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s 2023 annual report about Providence St. Mel School, a grantee partner of the foundation. Click here to read more content from the annual report.

Mario Hoover earned the nickname “Mr. 36” from achieving a perfect ACT score in 2022. He was the first student at Providence St. Mel School (PSM) to earn the accomplishment. 

Located on Chicago’s West Side, Providence St. Mel has offered preschool through high school students a high-quality education for more than four decades. JSF provides a matching grant for the school’s Paul J. Adams III Purple & Gold Scholarship Fund. The fund, named after Chicago civil rights activist, educator, and PSM founder, offers vital financial and academic support to economically disadvantaged students during their middle and high school years.

“I never imagined I would get a perfect score,” Hoover said to ABC7 Chicago—one of several interviews in which he participated. “To me, it means doing the best that I can to boost my academic career and professional career to inspire others to do the same.” 

Hoover began attending PSM in the third grade after his public elementary school closed. Christel Ward, PSM’s dean of students, recalls having him in class. 

“To me, it means doing the best that I can to boost my academic career and professional career to inspire others to do the same.”

 

“I watched Mario grow up and excel,” said Ward, who has worked at PSM for over 25 years. “Because of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, we’ve been able to help students excel and get ready for college.” 

Following that top ACT score, Hoover kept pursuing his studies. The summer before his senior year, Hoover attended a two-week program at the University of Oxford to study neuroscience. 

A PSM student works on an assignment in the classroom during a site visit from the JSF team in September 2023.

In addition to achieving a perfect ACT score and a 3.9 GPA, Hoover participated in PSM’s concert choir and on the track and debate teams. He also tutored social studies and English and volunteered at a nearby hospital and the local Boys & Girls Club. During his senior year, he competed in the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) State Series for solo and ensemble, earning a Division I rating and an IHSA All-State Honorable Mention. He also advanced to the Chicago regional finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition, which introduces students to the 20th-century playwright and his American Century Cycle through workshops and masterclasses. 

Now, Hoover is a freshman at the University of Chicago, a top research institution, on a full scholarship. He’s majoring in neuroscience and pursuing a minor in music. His hard work and accomplishments exemplify the power of education and Providence St. Mel’s commitment to its students—including those who may not be able to afford a private school education. 

“Education changes lives,” said Ward. “It isn’t just an investment in yourself. You’re using that tool to make a difference somewhere else—individually, in your school, or in your community. Change is about not staying where you were. It’s progress.”

Behind JSF’s Mandate of Service: The Individuals Who Serve

She was too choked up to talk. I couldn’t see her face because I was sitting behind her on the stage. I really wasn’t sure if she would stand at the podium in silence, fighting to catch her breath or ramble for ten minutes. Either way it wouldn’t matter. She had the undivided attention of everyone. It was not for the promise of an inspiring message, nor the VIP status bestowed on her at the event. Neither the highest-ranking public official nor the gifted keynote speaker would come close to garnering the focus of the students in the audience as she would. She commanded the grateful reverence of those in attendance because of the genuine relationships she had built with them over the years, and you could see it on their faces.

a woman standing at a lectern with a man in the background behind her

Wanda Kirby, who is retiring from the Palm Beach County School District, receives a hand with lowering her microphone from colleague Gbolade George during the Johnson Scholars/Take Stock in Children graduation ceremony earlier this month in suburban West Palm Beach, Florida. Photos by Coastal Click Photography.

Wanda Kirby had served these disadvantaged high school students through the Palm Beach County School District’s Johnson Scholars/Take Stock in Children Program, and many of them had reached this graduation milestone because of her work. Tonight, she was retiring.

Foundation work can sometimes feel removed from the people we serve. The stewardship of our organization through committee service, letters of inquiry, applications and reports does not directly connect us to the individuals we serve … but the Wandas do.

It’s a common denominator we find in many of our grantee partners – individuals whose personal investment is almost immeasurable, except in terms of graduations, college acceptances, job offers, and personal growth of the young people they’ve assisted.

I think of Dr. Leslie Pendleton, who leads University of Florida’s first-generation student success program. She knew that first-generation students needed guidance not for their academics but for life outside the classroom.

Paul J. Adams III, executive chairman and founder of Providence St. Mel School, says “It’s not rocket science” about the success of the 42-year-old school on Chicago’s west side. Maybe not rocket science, but an undying commitment to high expectations, accountability, strong curriculum and good instruction.

J. Curtis Warner, Jr., was the founder and architect of the Berklee College of Music City Music Program. The program brings inner-city middle and high school students from Boston to Berklee for a collegiate experience and mentoring. The program is now being replicated around the country.

Our partnerships with grantees link us to the people we serve. Our work is most effective and fulfilling when we view it through the lens of that service to people.

The work of Wanda Kirby, Leslie Pendleton, Paul J. Adams III, J. Curtis Warner, Jr. and so many others reflects JSF’s mandate of serving disadvantaged people at its best. In the JSF family, we have all had the experience of seeing first-hand the fruit of that service.


Bobby Krause is CEO of Johnson Scholarship Foundation.