A school at the service of the poor. In its early years most students were children of Irish factory workers, today they are Afro-Americans. At a time when racism in the US is resurging, the story of Chicago’s Leo High School is exemplary. In the difficult neighbourhood known as South Side, where drug-dealing and violence are daily events, this ninety-year-old institute is an oasis of opportunities for young Afro-Americans at risk. With the passing of the years the student body of Leo High, as it is commonly known, has changed, but it never failed its mission.
An advanced learning school for the poor. For the first 40 years this all-boys high-school established in Chicago in 1926, named after Pope Leo XIII, was the point of reference of children of white factory-workers, most of whom of Irish origin. They were extremely poor; they lived in run-down houses in the southern part of the city, the so-called South Side, and strived to make ends meet.
Then something suddenly changed, and so did the school.
“In the mid-1960s I was attending my junior year”, said Dan McGrath, former student, present headmaster of the high school. “At the time, the neighbourhood was 80% white, but in my last high-school year 99% were Afro-Americans.” “During those years there had been shootings between white and black gangs”, McGrath added. “The Irish residents grew scared and quickly left their homes. The path of integration wasn’t even considered. Everything changed and the ethnic composition of Leo High was reversed.”
The helping hand of the archdiocese. Since then, following in the wake of its earlier welcome of Irish residents, Leo High, whose motto is “Facta non verba”, opened its doors to serve the Afro-American community. And despite the fact that with time the number of enrolled students dropped from over 1000 to less than 200 – which compromises its financial sustainability – the archdiocese, explained the spokesperson Anne Maselli, turns a blind eye, “and continues subsidizing the school, conscious of its guiding role” not only for the students but for the entire community. “Leo High”, pointed out Jim Rigg, Superintendant of Chicago Catholic Schools for the archdiocese, “has a consolidated presence in the community, and the latter’s support, in addition to the strong leadership, leaves room to many opportunities for growth. We are hopeful. The school can continue thriving.”
The shining light of the neighbourhood. Unlike other schools that saw a slow, yet steady decrease in the number of students, until they gave up completely also owing to a lack of budgetary resources, Leo High has never failed in its mission as the district’s shining light.
“In Chicago it’s uncommon for an educational institute to be still standing after 90 years”,
McGrath proudly remarked. “Driving along these areas makes one realize how many families have moved out, including businesses and even churches. But Leo High never budged.”
A climate of kinship. Many people believe that the atmosphere of kinship of this school is the secret of its longevity, along with its colours – orange and black – that constitute an extraordinarily binding element of pride. Old and new students feel part and parcel of the same story, despite the marked change in the student population. “It’s amazing”, said Marcus Pass, ex-student, presently athletics coach of the “Lions”. “I know of no other school with a network such as ours. Ex-students who are now 50-60 years-old pay regular visits to the school to welcome the new students, and often become their mentors.” Mike Holmes, coach of American football, pointed out: “When you see a 90-year-old white man, laughing and talking with black youths in their 20s, singing the school’s anthem, you understand that this school is a unique dream come true.”
Sports and achievements. Although the Leo High doesn’t have a gym or other facilities that can be found in richer schools, it still has what it takes: its top level basket-ball features a brilliant team that is the champion of the neighbouring districts, and most of all, the students’ academic achievements are remarkable. For the past ten years all Leo High students completed their final diploma and all the “Lions”, none excluded, are admitted in at least one university, if not more. For Christian Armstrong, who started studying at Leo High a couple of years ago,
the secret is this feeling of being bound together by unique fellowship.
“If I’m feeling a bit blue, a fellow-student will immediately come up to me and ask me how things are going, I wouldn’t know how to explain how this atmosphere came to be. But you can perceive it in the air, it’s almost magical.”