When Christine Beck became president and chief executive of the Gesu School in North Philadelphia in 2003, she took charge of the city's first private Catholic school for low-income children.
Beck will retire next month after serving in the vanguard of philanthropists, volunteers, and members of religious communities working to ensure that Catholic education remains an option for poor children in neighborhoods where the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has closed schools.
Two other independent Catholic schools have opened in recent years, and two more are on the drawing boards.
"I think we have been a trailblazer for a lot of reasons," said Beck, 67. "Everyone in this building is driven by a pure mission of justice in education. . . . We have a very ecumenical group of people who work here. I'm not even Catholic."
Gesu School enrolls 450 children from prekindergarten through eighth grade. It became an independent school in 1993, the year the archdiocese consolidated congregations and closed schools in nine North Philadelphia parishes.
Gesu, at 1700 W. Thompson St., had close ties with neighboring St. Joseph's Preparatory School, a private boys' school operated by the Jesuits. The Jesuits and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order, which had staffed the parish school, resolved to keep it open for neighborhood children.
The Rev. George W. Bur, Gesu's former pastor, became the school's founding president. He helped establish an independent board of trustees and attracted financial support from business leaders and philanthropists of varying religious backgrounds.
Beck, who was the president and chief executive officer of the National Junior Tennis League and had helped establish the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education program, was recruited to join Gesu's board in 1996. A former classroom teacher, she succeeded Bur as CEO.
Both received Gesu Spirit Medals at the school's annual gala at the National Constitution Center this month.
Beck first agreed to become involved with Gesu "so long as there's no fund-raising," she recalled with a laugh. She soon discovered that fund-raising was integral to the school's survival.
Gesu spends $6,500 per child, including summer and after-school programs, Beck said, but charges $2,000 tuition. Still, with many families earning less than $30,000, few can afford that.
"Some grandparents come in with $20 occasionally," Beck said. "But the point is, that is our mission, so we don't turn any of them away, which of course . . . puts more pressure on the fund-raising."
Because the school must raise $3 million of its $4 million annual budget, Beck and the board made beefing up the endowment a priority. She led a $12 million, three-year campaign that doubled the endowment and paid for extensive building improvements.
And, working with the board, she helped expand a "sponsor-a-child" program that now aims to cover the costs of educating 420 students by 2013.
The Gesu Scholarship Fund also receives about $300,000 from the state's Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which allows businesses to receive tax credits for donations to programs that provide scholarships for low-income children to attend nonpublic schools. Beck said Gesu used some of the money to help its graduates attend Catholic high schools.
Given the financial challenges that schools like Gesu face, Beck said, it's no surprise that other schools look to it for advice on everything from fund-raising to creating annual funds.
Gesu, she said, uses its resources to ensure that education includes art, music, technology, advanced writing, and advanced math.
"Our children don't do well on standardized tests," Beck said. "I don't think that's unusual in this population, and yet they learn well."
About 30 percent of Gesu's grads attend archdiocesan high schools. Others enroll at charter schools or district magnet schools, such as Bodine and Central. A handful receive scholarships to private schools, such as St. Joseph's Prep, Springside, and Shipley.
In all, Beck said, 90 percent of Gesu students graduate from high school.
She said Gesu offered proof that "we can provide an environment that's safe, that's caring, that's demanding, to give these children who don't have any choices in their lives a real opportunity. I guess nothing is more important than that."
On June 8, she will participate in her last Gesu graduation and hand out 43 eighth-grade diplomas with Sister Ellen Convey, the principal.
"It's hard to leave," said Beck, who will be succeeded by Bryan Carter, the community-development director for a nonprofit adoption agency in Illinois. "This is a wonderful, magical place."