One School in Detroit Took the Road Less Traveled By…

I am a proud graduate of Detroit Catholic Schools.  The educational training, spiritual formation and friendships formed through St. Scholastica and U of D Jesuit High School bless me to this day (as captured in the picture above with Fred Hunter, Terence Thomas, Gerry Boylan and Dan Varner at Detroit PAL’s MVP Dinner last night).

When I was a kid though, there was a healthy variety of diverse Catholic schools like St. Scholastica and Christ the King, all-Black Catholic schools like Precious Blood and Redford St. Mary’s, and all-white Catholic schools spread throughout the suburbs.  As St. Scholastica became integrated, I went from playing hockey and listening to Gordon Lightfoot in kindergarten to playing basketball and listening to Sugar Hill in the fifth grade.  That always seemed like a great upgrade to me.

As a kid, I figured that suburban Catholic schools would become diverse as I grew up, just as my neighborhood did, and that they would be better off for it, as I was.  Thirty-some years later, I see how wrong I was, and it breaks my heart.

I have spent the last two years going to a different Catholic grade school every weekend to watch my son play soccer, basketball and lacrosse games for U of D’s Jesuit Academy, and the teams he plays against have virtually the same proportion of white players that they did when I played against them, despite the fact that the communities around the schools, like Redford, Canton, and Farmington have grown much more diverse since then.

What gives?  Why haven’t more Catholic schools made a commitment to make their school look more like the body of Christ?

This is a decision that the Jesuits made for U of D in 1977 after their faculty had voted to follow the lead of Catholic Central and others to move out of Detroit.  My dad was one of the teachers at U of D who had voted to remain, and the Jesuit’s veto of the retreat was the best thing that could have happened to the school.  But it did not look that way for at least 20 years.

I was the president of the student body near the nadir of the school’s enrollment free-fall in 1987.  The success of our student government rested on whether the school’s monthly dance was “live!”  Keep in mind this is an all-boys school.  The dance was one’s best and sometimes only chance to meet a girl for the next 30 days.  If the DJ played too much house music, or anything by Bruce Springsteen, an entire race of kids was likely to hit the sidelines in serious protest of the unfairness of it all.

For the Black kids, too much white music was the tipping point, not the root cause of racial tension.  We had a history teacher who taught that the Civil War was not about slavery, a school counselor who routinely encouraged students of color to go to third-tier state colleges (those same kids all graduated from more selective universities and are now successful doctors, a Wall Street financier,  and an actor).  And the worst affront, as I recall, was that the only African-American man they ever saw in the school was “pushing a broom.”

The racial tension built in the years following my graduation, despite the fact that the school elected its second African-American student body president in the school’s history in 1989, followed by African-American presidents in the ensuing two years.  Much like our country a couple decades later, what was held up as a symbol of progress also revealed a growing discontent from both races.  Tensions heightened inside the school for years, while also mounting in the nation after Los Angeles police officers were caught on tape beating Rodney King.

In response, two students, Rob Bryant 91 and Damon Harvey ’91, co-founded a club  called the Black Awareness Society for Education, or BASE, to proactively address where they felt the school–and our nation–were falling short.  In  my dad’s most enduring legacy at the school, he served as the founding faculty sponsor.   Last Saturday night, U of D  celebrated the success that BASE continues to be 25 years later with a hundred or so alumni.  They included:

Michael Porter ‘71, who recalled being at U of D for orientation in the summer of “67 when the riots rocked Detroit, being sent to the gym with the rest of the student body on April 4, 1968 for fear of more riots after the murder of Dr. King, and of last the last day of school that year, June 6, the day Bobby Kennedy was killed.

Sam Jones, the African-American student body president elected in 1989, who now runs an aviation assets investment firm in Los Angeles, California, said:

Growing up on food stamps in Detroit was hard.  Getting through U of D was challenging.  Turns out, going to Harvard Business School, working on Wall Street, and buying a large jet engine company is not that hard.  That’s why I tell people food stamps and U of D gave me an unfair competitive advantage.

Herman Jenkins ’92, and the first president of BASE noted that “No Black kid wanted to come to U of D when he was a kid.  We were all here because our parents forced us.  Now, it’s a school that Black kids want to come to.”

Terence Thomas ‘86, observed, “Everyone of us is here because of what someone else did for us.  It may have been a teacher or a coach, or an upperclassman looking out for a freshmen, but all of our stories are about what someone did for us, and now we need to do that for others.”

At night’s end Kyle Chandler ‘99 and the school’s Assistant Principal, asked the five other African-American leaders and teachers at the school to stand to be recognized.  They were met by a resounding standing ovation—a profound personal thank you to these amazing people as well as a collective celebration for a school community working better than most at being and reflecting the body of Christ.  It’s why I drive 50 minutes to get my son there each day.

Finally, the school’s new president, Fr. Ted Munz, shared his belief that the school is doing some things well, but believes that it can do better.  To attract at least 20 more students from Detroit, U of D is launching a Commitment Detroit initiative, which offers  $10,000 financial aid awards to new students in Detroit for the next four years.  This is possible because of so many alumni who give generously each year so that more than 300 families like mine collectively receive more than $2 million each year in financial aid.

The decision to stay and grow in Detroit has made U of D one of the best high schools in Michigan, and the school is flourishing as a result of choosing a road few others have.  It is fulfilling its mission of developing men for others for the greater glory of God,

In The Jonathan Effect, I argue that churches should partner with schools so that their members can help students achieve their destiny.  I am convinced that they should do this not out some misguided sense of noblesse oblige, but because it will make them stronger and healthier.  U of D is a school that has chosen to partner with an entire city to help their young people achieve their destiny, and their success in doing so during the 140 years of the school, and 40 years since the decision was made that they would stay in Detroit, proves that point writ large.

Other Catholic schools would be wise to follow.  Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

U of D letter jacket