School Visits to Cleveland and Detroit

By: Randy Kurtz, President and CEO of the Cristo Rey Network

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Detroit Cristo Rey High School:
Sonya Mays – Senior Assistant to the Emergency Manager of the City of Detroit, Randy Kurtz, President Mike Khoury, Principal Sue Rowe, Board Chair Sr. Barbara Stanbridge.

You don’t have to wonder much about the value of our mission when you visit our schools in Cleveland and Detroit, as I did last week.

Rich Clark’s school on the east side of Cleveland is a beacon of hope in a rough and tumble neighborhood within sight of downtown. The local Wendy’s has a high volume of retail traffic but is near the usual low income sights such as convenience stores masquerading as supermarkets, identifiable former chain retailing outlets now housing lower end establishments, boarded up buildings with a homeless man in front of the door. Careers, futures and dreams are not made on St. Clair Avenue.

Inside Saint Martin de Porres, however, Rich has 440 students pumped up about the new school year, the Healthy Lifestyles garden they tend that helps feed the student body, art projects and running cross country. And every student this year, for the first time, has an iPad as a learning tool.

Detroit Cristo Rey President Mike Khoury’s (Mike’s a former business exec) school is also a bright spot in its Hispanic neighborhood on the Southwest side of Detroit. I got to witness a hint of the rite of passage known as Quinceañera when I saw one of Mike’s young students driven around the school in an elegant horse drawn carriage. 

Detroit, however, is not a happy place. While you may have more recently learned about its economic travails, Detroit has been in fiscal decline for decades. It is much more dire than when I was responsible for the International House of Pancake restaurants in Detroit thirty years ago – and, even then, unemployment was above the national average.

But I am often struck by how God works in our mission. I invited my friend Sonya Mays to visit Detroit Cristo Rey and she pulled up in the parking lot just as I did last Friday afternoon. Sonya is a former middle school math teacher and Wall Street banker (which is how I got to know her) who now serves as Senior Advisor to the state-appointed Emergency Manager of the City of Detroit, Kevyn Orr.

What Sonya didn’t know is that our school had minutes before celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit and its kickoff of the new school year. Most of the school’s Board of Directors and several major donors were having lunch when we arrived. I was called on to make a brief presentation about the work of the Network office but the Q&A – once I introduced Sonya – quickly turned to the daunting civic service issues facing Detroit.

Sonya handled the questions about public transportation and fire and police protection with aplomb and grace. She spoke candidly about the challenges – providing tangible proof that the leadership downtown is working very hard and is focused on the most important issues. After the impromptu dialogue, Mike gave us a tour of the school, we met students and faculty and I saw the “inner” middle school teacher in Sonya light up as she grasped the essence of our work. She and Mike discussed who is and who is not on the corporate partner “bulletin board” and Detroit’s business and political landscape. It was fascinating to me – all I did was trail behind and listen like a school kid (and I’m older than both of them).

So our school has a new friend in a leadership role in America’s most troubled city and Sonya knows of a small Catholic high school on the Southwest side of Detroit where the Cristo Rey light burns brightly.

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