Ethical Leadership: The story of John Rowe

Plenty of schools are named for the donors that provide pivotal financial support. Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy, the Exelon campus of the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, certainly benefits from the investments the Rowe and Clark families have so generously given. Additional support has been provided by Exelon Corp., where John Rowe served as the energy company’s chairman and CEO. Money matters: it can make a huge difference to the quality of education a school provides.

But not many schools can claim the kind of hands-on dedication that Rowe gives to the local public school that bears his name. It’s these other ways he leads that make him a model of the ethical leadership we work to instill in our students.

“John’s commitment to education is inspiring,” says Brenda Cora, principal of Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy. “Every year, for the last 10 years, he returns to Rowe-Clark and gets just as excited as our staff to meet our newest Masai Lions. John is not someone who supports us from the sidelines.”

Cora describes John’s decision to come in and teach “Dubois Society,” a history book club he co-leads with the school’s AP U.S. History teacher.

“Every year he shows humility and thoughtfulness, taking feedback on how to become a better teacher,” she says.

But for John, it goes beyond donations and classroom teaching. He keeps in touch with students after high school and lends himself to be their mentor. One such mentee, Lissette Ayvar, a Rowe-Clark 2011 graduate, told me she can’t speak about Mr. Rowe without including Mrs. Rowe.

“They’re a power couple,” she insists. Lissette graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2015 with a B.S. in Engineering Management. She currently works in sales at Christopher Glass & Aluminum.

“Ten years after first meeting them,” Lissette relates, “they still check in to see how I’m doing, or to meet up for dinner. I’ve gotten this far in my education and career because of their scholarships, guidance and love. They are the most selfless, committed, caring leaders I know.”

Mike and Tonya Milke started the first Noble Network school in the early days of Chicago chartering, not long after Kim Day and I founded Perspectives Charter Schools. We were all Chicago Public Schools teachers with a great hunger to give students the complete education they needed — education of the mind and the heart. We’ve learned so much since then, from so many who have supported us, our schools and our students.

But Mike tells me that, of all their supporters, John and Jeanne Rowe stand out.

“Their commitment to the Rowe-Clark campus and students is unmatched in our experience with donors and community leaders,” he says. “Their leadership was vital in helping Rowe-Clark grow into an oasis of education for so many students.”

Mike shared with me how heartwarming it is to see John teach, learn students’ names, and take a real interest in students’ college paths. “The most impressive part of John’s contribution to Rowe-Clark, the Noble Network, and education in Chicago is how personal it is for him.”

Being an ethical leader is about making it personal. In my work helping to lead Perspectives, I hope to inspire our teachers and students, and in turn I seek inspiration and renewal from other leaders like John Rowe. When I feel challenged to make time for the one-on-one moments that matter most, in the face of pressures to keep our schools excelling, I think of John. I think of him teaching history to high schoolers, learning their names, mentoring them as they tackle college and taking feedback to heart.

Rowe-Clark’s principal tells me she has personally learned a lot about being a visible and connected leader from John.

“Having such an involved donor encourages and reminds me to lead from the front,” Cora says. “I’m blessed and grateful to be able to call John Rowe my mentor and friend, and our school could not be the amazing place it is if it were not for him.”

John and Jeanne Rowe are models of ethical leadership inspiring us to make it personal as we invest of ourselves, not just our money, in things that matter. 

Diana Shulla-Cose is founder and president at Perspectives Charter Schools.