Gift from Potocsnak family endows college prep program, high school teaching awards | #oscars | #academywards

The Potocsnak family has made a new multimillion-dollar gift to Northwestern in honor of President Morton Schapiro, who concludes his tenure in August after 13 years at the University.

In tribute to Schapiro, the gift supports popular programs created during his presidency that help prepare area students for college and celebrate the profound impact high school teachers have on readying students for Northwestern.

A majority of the gift will endow Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools, which will be named Morton Schapiro Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools. The academy, established in 2013, is a free, multiyear college access and enrichment program for academically motivated high school students from diverse backgrounds.

The remainder of the gift will be used to endow the University’s Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award program, which will be named the Morton Schapiro Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award. Each year at Commencement, Northwestern honors five high school teachers whose personal and professional commitment has touched the Northwestern community.

Schapiro, a professor of economics, has modeled an active teaching and scholarly career that today is rare for a president of a large research university. Upon announcing his departure in March 2021, he noted that “teaching — and learning from — our students as well as our faculty and alumni may be the highlight of my time here.”

His sentiments strike a chord with Chicago industrialist John Potocsnak, who said, “With this gift, my family and I intendnot only to honor Morty, but also hopefully to inspire future Morty Schapiros when they realize what their contributions can achieve.”

“I’m proud of the way Northwestern faculty, staff and students launched and developed these two incredibly meaningful programs,” Schapiro said. “And I’m grateful beyond words for how the Potocsnak family has stepped forward to endow them both in perpetuity.” 

Helping prepare CPS students for college success

Led by Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, the academy is designed for students from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) who have limited financial means and often would be among the first generation in their family to attend college. Students are prepared for highly selective colleges and universities through individualized and group experiences focused on academic enrichment, college counseling and leadership development.

“[The academy] helped me see I had the potential to get in here and feel like I actually belonged at a school like this,” said Andrew Duarte ’21, a Northwestern alumnus and member of the inaugural academy cohort.

The idea for the academy grew out of conversations between Schapiro and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ’85 MA. The two wanted to create opportunities for high-achieving CPS students who just missed qualifying for one of the district’s selective enrollment, college preparatory high schools. 

Schapiro also has worked to increase the number of CPS students enrolled at Northwestern. The percentage of first-year students from CPS has doubled from 3% in fall of 2009 to 6% in fall of 2021.

Of the nearly 300 CPS students who have graduated from the academy, 285 have continued to four-year colleges or universities, including Northwestern.

The academy developed as part of the Good Neighbor, Great University program, which provides need-based financial aid to any qualifying Chicago or Evanston high school graduate who enrolls at Northwestern.

Illuminating the transformative power of teachers

The Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Awards were launched in 2011. Since then, Northwestern has paid tribute to a new cohort each year, shining a light on the transformative power high school teachers have on students’ lives in and out of the classroom.

Each fall, Schapiro invites graduating Northwestern seniors to nominate their favorite high school teacher. A selection committee of faculty, staff and students reviews the nominations and the finalists’ teaching portfolios.  

“Winning this award showed me in a tangible, exuberant way that teaching matters and that what we do in the classroom, day in and day out, really does make an impact on students,” said 2018 recipient Esther Wu of Mountain View, California.

More than 50 teachers have received the honor, which includes an invitation to participate in Commencement exercises in June, an award of $5,000 and an additional $5,000 for the recipient’s school.

The Potocsnak family has generously supported Northwestern for many years. Their gifts have funded the Potocsnak Longevity Institute in Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and supported the Potocsnak Family Lobby Atrium in the Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Biomedical Research Center. They also established the Potocsnak Family C.S.C. Professorship, which is held by Frank Palella, MD, ’90 ’92 GME, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Feinberg.


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