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Corporate, Church and Civic Leaders Collaborate for Cardinal Ritter Prep's Success

By Susan Caba

Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School is a sleek addition to the Grand Center cultural district, with its mix of historic buildings—the Fox Theatre, for example—and contemporary architecture, epitomized by the Pulitzer Museum.

But the school, built in 2003 on a 16-acre campus, is more than just a suitable northern anchor for the district. Cardinal Ritter is an example—one of the first—of an unusual business model for a faith-based private school.

Tuition and student fees cover just 55 percent of the school’s annual $3.6 million budget. The Archdiocese of St. Louis contributes another 12 percent—even though the school is independently governed by a lay board. What is, perhaps, most unusual is the participation of the City’s business community, which covers almost one-third of the annual operating costs.

“It is very unusual for the corporate community to have this level of involvement in a private high school,” says Michael Salsich, vice president of Cardinal Ritter. “As far as I know, this synergy of corporate, church and civic leaders energetically supporting a school like Cardinal Ritter is unmatched anywhere in the country.”

With long-term civic support from Commerce Bank’s Chairman, President and CEO David Kemper, the list of corporate supporters is long and reads like a business directory of the City: Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Commerce Bank, Anheuser-Busch, Laclede Gas Co., Schnuck Markets, Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., A.G. Edwards, Alberici Constructors, Nestlé Purina PetCare and Energizer, to name just a few. Emerson Electric has contributed $200,000 to the endowment since 2005 and matched an additional $221,000 in other donations.

Corporate support has allowed Cardinal Ritter to maintain the lowest tuition of any private high school in St. Louis—$5,500 a year, even though the actual cost of educating each student is about $10,000. Business leaders participated in design decisions for the new school and in the creation of the lay board of directors that governs the school.

“We treat all of our donors as investors,” Salsich says. “It is our responsibility to report to them how their capital is being used to literally change students’ lives.”

Robert M. Cox Jr., senior vice president of administration at Emerson, says the company has a history of involvement with Cardinal Ritter going back to the school’s location in Walnut Park. The company donated $1 million to the building fund and then decided to “get the ball rolling” when the school made an appeal for scholarship funding.

“The bottom line is, I was swept off my feet at the celebration of the school’s 25th anniversary. Every graduating senior is accepted to a college and most get scholarships,” says Cox. “There are very worthy African-American students who can’t afford Cardinal Ritter’s tuition. If the key to their college success is having a scholarship to Cardinal Ritter, then we have an obligation to make that happen.”

In addition to financial support, the surrounding arts community in Grand Center has opened opportunities for collaboration with students. And the school, again with the support of area employers, offers a five-year internship program that connects students with a local company right through college. The idea is that those students will have the contacts to return to St. Louis when they finish college.

Cardinal Ritter’s mandate may be one reason the school draws the support of the business community.

“Our primary goal is to develop and keep these young men and women in our region,” says school president Leon Henderson, who predicts the school will become a national model for urban education. “As a partnership between the Archdiocese, business and the community, Cardinal Ritter will be known for its commitment to high academic standards, innovation, and community involvement.”

Higher education after graduation is an absolute expectation—and the school boasts that 100 percent of its students do go on to college. And while many of the students are “the cream of the cream,” others might not ordinarily be expected to get into a college prep program.

“We have some who wouldn’t get in on the basis of their test scores or grade point average or because of some kink in their performance,” Henderson says.

“We open up the possibilities. From the moment you enter the school, you are greeted with the notion that you will be going to college. We provide the support systems to get them there.”

“We don’t let students fail, even if they make a mistake or an error,” says Michael Blackshear, associate principal. “We hold them accountable, but we also give them guidance on how to grow from the experience.”

The aim is to create the city’s future leaders, and particularly African-American leaders. Cardinal Ritter was located in Walnut Park for more than two decades. Historically, the student body has been largely—though not exclusively—black. Nor is it exclusively Catholic. In fact, about 75 percent of the students aren’t Catholic, says Henderson.

But faith development is one of the three prongs of Cardinal Ritter’s curriculum. The other two are academic excellence and development of leadership skills. The combination, says Henderson, “leads to civic responsibility, a commitment to service to others, something bigger than yourself.”

“A majority of our students are from families with strong ties to some religious faith,” Henderson says. “The parents like the fact that we are faith-based, that we offer not only a solid education, but one that celebrates and thinks about a life of morals and ethics.”

Both the faith development and the leadership components are woven into the curriculum. Students take a world religions class each year. Students attend a mass once a month and the liturgy becomes the topic of a wider discussion of values. For example, in November, the school celebrates All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

“We celebrate those who have passed in our lives,” says Henderson. “It allows us to enhance a student’s faith, no matter what it is.”

“Prayer and speaking of our faith is very much a part of the day-to-day curriculum,” says English teacher Sandy Reid, who’s been at Cardinal Ritter for 18 years. “Students aren’t required to buy into it, but they are required to respect the curriculum. Discussing the beliefs and rituals leads into conversations with students who aren’t Catholic or Christian about their values and beliefs.”

Reid also teaches a mandatory class for incoming freshmen (about 120 each year) based on “The Seven Habits of Highly Effec-tive Teens,” a book by Sean Covey. Students work through the exercises in the book, keep a journal and write a mission statement.

“It’s part of being organized and setting priorities,” says Reid. “It forces them to look beyond high school and makes them look at their principles and ethics. It connects into our mission to provide character-based education—academics without character is useless.”

Juniors, too, take a mandatory leadership class. Seniors have the option of a third class. In addition, there are two leadership groups at Cardinal Ritter, The Brotherhood and The Sisterhood. They are open to students who embody the mission of the school. Brotherhood members are hand picked by the faculty. Girls can be nominated or apply for The Sisterhood, but they must be voted in by the faculty. Three “no” votes means no membership—and, once accepted, the girls must reapply each year.

“We train our students to ask hard questions,” says Reid. “We’re small, we give our kids personal attention. It’s a real nurturing, strengthening environment.”

Principal Carmele Hall, whose son graduated from Cardinal Ritter, also uses the word “nurturing.”

“This is a family,” Hall says. “We really take seriously our commitment to our students and to our parents. We want them to see themselves as leaders.”

Applicants to Cardinal Ritter are interviewed personally and asked to write a short essay on the spot about why they want to attend the school. The responses can be both amusing and telling.

“I believe that God gave me a gift to play basketball,” wrote one boy. “If I can play basketball here, we can make it to the championship.”

“I want to go to Cardinal Ritter because I heard that it was a lot of fun. I also want to go there because it is a newly designed school and everything is clean and also they have new textbooks that are not missing any pages, ” said another.

And one put it simply: “I have my eyes set on the future.”

Cardinal Ritter College Prep INTERN LEADERSHIP PROGRAM

How do you keep talented college graduates in St. Louis — or lure them back, if they’ve gone to school out of state?

One way is to hook them up with a local company in high school, one that keeps in touch all through the college years and is likely to offer a job at graduation. And that’s just the idea behind the Intern Leadership Program at Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School.

The school teams up with St. Louis-area firms to offer on-the-job training and internships to high-achieving Cardinal Ritter students, starting after their junior year and continuing right through college.

“This work-based learning opportunity will provide incentives for talented African-American youth to choose to live in, work in and provide leadership in the St. Louis region after college graduation,” according to the program’s brochure.

The Danforth Foundation provided a grant to get the program going when Cardinal Ritter opened its new building in 2003. The first participants in the program will be graduating from college next year. But—even before they graduated from high school—more than one would-be pharmacist has been permanently hired at Walgreens while participating in the program.

“Our goal is to retain our college graduates in St. Louis, which would in turn increase the quality and diversity of future generations of St. Louis leaders,” says Cardinal Ritter President Leon Henderson. About 150 students are participating.

To qualify, they must have completed their junior year with a grade point average of 3.0 or above, have a good record of attendance and punctuality, and demonstrate dependability, maturity and responsibility.

In return, they may receive scholarships or tuition stipends, training in areas like resume writing, interviewing, and business etiquette, and the opportunity to intern at a local business for as many as six summers. The idea is that the student will be committed to St. Louis, will have developed contacts at a local company, and may even secure a job before graduation.

Companies that have participated since the start five years ago are A.G. Edwards & Sons, Ameren, Commerce Bank, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and Laclede Gas Co. They were joined the following year by Edward D. Jones & Co., Grimco Inc., and UniGroup Inc. The program continues to grow—in the third year, Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America, Smurfit-Stone Container, Schnuck Markets, US Bank and the VA Medical Center joined.

For more information on participating in the Intern Leadership Program, contact April D. Cotton at (314) 446-5521 or email her at


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Shaun Hayes
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Carmele Hall and Leon Henderson
Big Brothers/Big Sisters
Andy Trivers
Steve Smith

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