Mario Hoover scored a perfect 36 on the ACT, the highest score in Providence St. Mel history. Credit: Provided

GARFIELD PARK — A student at Providence St. Mel School on the West Side achieved a perfect score on the ACT standardized college admissions test.

The perfect score of 36 is the highest any student performed on the test in the prestigious private school’s 42-year history.

The student, Mario Hoover, is a bright and ambitious junior born and raised on the West Side. He studied hard to earn a high score because he dreams of being a neurosurgeon and he “knows what [he’s] capable of,” he said.

He hopes his accomplishment encourages others in the neighborhood to recognize they are capable of excellence, Hoover said.

“It means that not only can I achieve this. But others can as well. It breaks the notion that people from the West Side can’t succeed,” Hoover said. “I hope people look at me and think they can do it as well.”

While Hoover has excelled academically, he has also triumphed outside the classroom by volunteering weekly at the MLK Boys & Girls Club at 2950 W. Washington Blvd., and singing in the All State Chorus. He hopes to continue his love of singing in college by studying music as a minor.

“He has a great voice. He’s very talented,” said Tim Ervin, principal at Providence St. Mel. “He’s a great kid from a great family. Just a joy to be around. Very positive attitude about everything.”

The exterior of Providence St. Mel School. Credit: Provided

Providence St. Mel is well-known on the West Side as a school with an excellent track record of guiding students. Students are known to go to some of the top universities in the country, and the school boasts that 100 percent of graduates since 1978 have received college scholarships, Ervin said.

“It speaks to the preparation at PSM that’s going to prepare students to be successful in college and beyond,” Ervin said.

But while several students each year score 34s and 35s on the ACT, Hoover is the first to get a perfect 36, Ervin said. Hoover has a mature perspective and knows what it takes to set himself up for a successful future and excel at the difficult ACT exam, Ervin said.

The tough academics at Providence St. Mel were a major reason Hoover’s mother  Zippora Collins enrolled him at the school. She attended the school for a year in high school, so she knew it would push him to stay on top of his classes and his homework.

“It’s very rigorous. The curriculum is way more demanding. It’s faster. They learn a lot more in the amount of time they’re given in a day,” she said. “He really had to do the work.”

Hoover started at Providence St. Mel in third grade. He transferred there after his previous school, Mary Mapes Dodge Elementary Renaissance Academy, was closed by then-mayor Rahm Emanuel along with 49 other schools, mostly in Black neighborhoods. 

Dealing with the school closure “was hard because we had no idea what was going to happen,” Collins said.

When the city shut down Dodge, the district assigned Hoover to a school at the edge of Humboldt Park. Hoover’s mother grew up on the West Side, so navigating different gang territories is a concern she’s all too familiar with. To protect her son from getting caught between feuding gangs on his commute, she pulled him out of public school and enrolled him at Providence St. Mel, which is closer to their home.

“I know the gangs are different. That’s where my mind went because I’ve lived here my whole life. You work on this block and these guys work on that block and they don’t get along,” she said. “I didn’t feel it was safe enough.”

Switching to a private school with a fast-paced curriculum was a difficult change for Hoover. It was especially tough to let go of the friends and teachers that supported him at Dodge, he said.

“Dodge really did feel like home. I was there for a long time and I made close connections, especially with teachers. But Providence eventually became home as well,” Hoover said.

It took some time to for Hoover to acclimate to Providence St. Mel in third grade, but”once he made that adjustment, he started to soar,” his mother said.

His success is proof that when young people are lifted up and given quality resources and opportunities, they can achieve beyond expectations, Hoover said.

“Not everybody has the best access to education. But once provided with those tools and resources to succeed, a lot of people have the potential to. I see potential everywhere as I walk through my neighborhood,” Hoover said.

Hoover has his sights set on the Ivy League and hopes to go to Columbia University in New York. His hard work paying off, and he has already been contacted by the school, his mother said.

“I get emotional because it is a great accomplishment,” she said. “It’s a huge accomplishment for our neighborhood and for our family.”

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