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Big in the Windy City

Big in the Windy City

He has found a home teaching at Wendell Phillips Academy, on Chicago’s troubled South Side, and now this Queen’s grad has turned around his school’s football program and is inspiring his student athletes to strive for excellence.
Teacher and football coach Troy McAllister, Artsci/PHE’03, with students DeWayne Collins (left) and Quayvon Shanes (right).

It’s a spring afternoon and Troy McAllister, Artsci/PHE’03, is escorting a visitor on a tour of Wendell Phillips Academy, the school where he has taught phys ed and served as head football coach for the past four years.

Wendell Phillips – named in honour of a 19th century American civil rights advocate – is one of Chicago’s oldest public high schools (1904). Originally built to teach the children of some of the city’s richest families, it became one of the anchors of the Bronzeville neighborhood that emerged as the hub of African-American business and culture in Chicago in the early 20th century.

Wendell Phillips was considered one of the worst schools in the city when the Board of ­Education decided to stage a “turnaround.”

Down in the school’s basement, Troy McAllister and his visitor walk past the weight room where Phillips’ student athletes train. “We were real lucky,” says Troy. “The school got everything donated, and it replaced some old, old weights that were covered in dust.”

Next door, in the old rifle range for the since-discontinued ­Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program, is another workout room, this one for cardio exercises.

The tour continues back up to the first floor, where boys and girls in the school’s Honors Academy take advanced classes. On the two upper floors are the gender-specific “schools within a school” for boys and girls.

I’m actually in love with it,” Troy says of separating males and ­females. “You take away a lot of tension that exists between teenage boys and teenage girls, and at least in a classroom setting, you avoid some of those distractions.”

One thing that can’t be avoided when you’re walking around Wendell Phillips, is a sense of history. A wall of fame near the main entrance spotlights scores of accomplished graduates, and a mural in another hallway looks like a who’s who of African-American celebrities from the 20th century: iconic singers Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, legendary poet Gwendolyn Brooks, trailblazing cosmetics entrepreneur George Johnson Sr., actress Marla Gibbs of The Jeffersons fame, and on and on.

But Wendell Phillips’ history isn’t all positive.

While Troy and other teachers there are working to connect the teenagers of the 21st century with some cultural touchstones – the Harlem Globetrotters had their roots here, too – they have to acknowledge some unpleasant chapters as well.

“We’ve tried to make that big push to bridge the generational gap,” Troy says. “The problem was, Phillips was so terrible in the ‘70s, ‘80s, into the ‘90s.”

Wendell Phillips Academy in Chicago

In fact, the school was troubled well into this century. Wendell Phillips was considered one of the worst schools in the city when the Board of ­Education decided to stage a “turnaround.” By 2010, the entire teaching staff had been replaced and operations turned over to the Academy for ­Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve student achievement in Chicago’s “chronically failing schools.”

During the spring of 2009, when this turnaround was in progress, Troy came to Wendell Phillips to look around. It wasn’t a pleasant sight.

“All the stairwells were cages, screened from the railings to the ceiling,” he says. “And I’d say – for lack of a better word – it was like a prison. [There were] students loitering in the hallways during classes. It wasn’t a learning environment. It was one of those worst-nightmare, worst-scenario situations. You wondered, ‘Why aren’t those kids in class? Why is nobody saying anything to them?’ There were students rolling dice in the corners.”

The school is a very different place today. The stairways are open again. The walls and floors are spotless. Students of both genders wear official school uniforms. Academic test score results are up all across the board, and Wendell Phillips – formerly rated as a Level 3 school, the lowest academic category in the rankings – is now at Level 1, the only neighbourhood school in Chicago to have won that distinction.

Troy is proud to be part of this remarkable turnaround, both as a teacher and as the head coach of the football team, which is coming off a breakthrough season.

“My big thing is that when kids have a problem, I’m going to be here every day for them. Over time, you build trust.”

The Wildcats opened the 2013 season in the Preseason Prep Bowl at Soldier Field, the home of NFL’s Chicago Bears. That marathon day of football featured three high school games and a college contest. Wendell Phillips and a neighbouring Catholic school, De La Salle Institute, kicked off the event with a hugely entertaining game won 51-48 by a seniors-dominated De La Salle team. Wendell Phillips countered with a youthful squad led by junior quarterback DeWayne Collins and star sophomore receiver Quayvon Skanes.

The Wildcats also lost their next game by three points, before reeling off nine wins in their next 10 games to reach the state quarterfinals for the first time in school history.

It was the latest highlight for Wendell Phillips on Troy’s watch, which began in much more humble circumstances.

For his first practice in the fall of 2010, Troy had just 12 players show up. “It took us two years to ­really change things,” he recalls. “The first year was a big struggle, not having a lot of players and trying to put in a structure.”

How did Canadian Troy McAllister come to be the coach entrusted with turning around the Phillips football program? It took some leaps of faith on both sides.

Troy, 35, grew up in the farming community of Joyceville, just north of Kingston. He played high school football at LaSalle Secondary School in Kingston before suiting up for the Gaels for five seasons, 1998-2003. He was a slotback, and “just OK,” he says with a laugh. Gaels coach Pat Sheahan has a somewhat different view. “Troy was ­dedicated, a real team player, and a student of the game,” Pat recalls.

After graduating, Troy stayed on with the team as a receivers coach. He also remained committed to his academic studies. For three years, he commuted between Kingston and Buffalo, NY, where he worked toward the master’s degree in education that he earned in 2006 at D’Youville College.

Then it was time for a life decision. “A D’Youville friend said, ‘Hey, let’s go to Chicago; they’ve got a job fair,’” Troy says.

So they did. Visiting the Windy City for the first time, Troy did the usual tourist rounds, but he also got a job offer to work at an inner-city elementary school.

“I took a week to think about it,” he says. “I told my parents, ‘Look, it’s the only realistic option I have to start a successful career.’ I figured if it didn’t work out, in a year I’d just come back home.”

But it did work out, in more ways than one.

Troy spent three years teaching at Dulles School of Excellence, an elementary school on Chicago’s South Side. His first year there, he met his future wife, Dorothy; they married in 2007 and have made their home on Chicago’s troubled South Side for the past seven years.

In 2009, he moved on to teach at Benjamin E. Mays Elementary Academy, coaching basketball there and football both at the youth level and for coach Glenn Johnson at Dunbar Vocational ­Career Academy.

Race is an especially sensitive topic in Chicago, which has a long and often troubled history of segregation in housing and education.

But Troy has found his niche teaching and coaching in African-American schools. He has won over the doubters.

Glenn Johnson offered Troy a high school coaching position when he saw how well the latter got along with the youngsters in the “Mighty Men” youth football program. Says Johnson, “He’s a white guy, but it doesn’t seem like it makes a difference as far as the kids are concerned. Troy treats the kids like he’d treat his son.”

DeWayne Collins, now Troy’s star quarterback, echoes that sentiment. “No matter what you’ve been through, he’ll always help you, and never let you quit. You (may) be feeling at your worst and not want to play because of something that happened at home. But somehow he always relates to it and understands, and he gets us up and going. And we go out and play harder than we did before.”

School principal Devon Horton, who like Johnson and Collins is African-American, also saw Troy’s empathy and patience in action. It was what Horton was looking for when he was putting together a teaching team to be tasked with turning around Phillips.

Troy in action with the Wendell Phillips Wildcats

“You could tell that he really cared about the kids,” Horton says of Troy’s work as a kindergarten teacher and as a grade-school basketball coach. “You try to find someone who genuinely cares and has a skill set. Troy displayed both. He took students who’d never played the game and held them accountable.”

Because of Wendell Phillips’ reputation as a school with challenges, the football job didn’t draw a lot of applicants. Even so, Horton wasn’t ­going to hire just anyone. “We didn’t want to keep up the recycling of coaches who had been at five or six schools,” he says.

Hiring a white coach at a historically African-American school drew some criticism, but the Wildcats’ record since speaks for itself – from a 2-7 first season, they were 7-3 and conference champs in 2011. That earned Wendell Phillips a promotion to a tougher conference in 2012 and a 5-4 finish that set the stage for 2013’s breakout season. The future looks bright for the Wildcats and their coach, who now seems to be such an obvious match for the challenge.

“Not to slight where I came from,” Troy says. “But I wanted to do something ‘different.’”

He senses that’s something he has in common with many of his students and football players. For them, doing something different involves wanting new experiences and better lives. More of the kids at Wendell Phillips are now graduating; school pride has soared, and Troy’s players are starting to win athletic scholarships that will give them opportunities to use football as a means to help them further their educations.

With a shared mindset that aims for excellence in all things, Troy McAllister and his students and athletes are breaking down some of the barriers that exist in Chicago.

“My big thing,” he says, “is that when kids have a problem, I’m going to be here every day for them. Over time, you build trust. And regardless of race, religion or anything else, they start to ­realize, ‘I can trust Coach. He’s going to be here. He’s going to do what he can to help me.‘”

It’s that attitude and that positive approach to his teaching and coaching that’s winning Troy McAllister kudos.

None of this comes as a surprise to Pat Sheahan.

“When Troy was on my coaching staff here at Queen’s, he was an excellent coach and a very giving person. So his successes at Phillips Academy are no surprise to me. Not only is Troy a credit to Queen’s, he’s a credit to our football and to the ­values our program stands for.”

Mike Clark, the Assistant Preps Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, reports on high school football and ­basketball. 

One of the underdogs

Check out Sports Illustrated’s story on Troy McAllister and his Wendell Phillips Academy Wildcats in season 2 of Underdogs: inspiring stories in high school football

[Queen's Alumni Review 2014-3 cover]