A shrinking student enrollment, dwindling funds, and a crumbling school building threatened to shutter Cardinal Ritter High School in St. Louis forever.
The tale is a familiar one for Roman Catholic schools in urban centers across the nation. But closing Cardinal Ritter wasn’t an option that the St. Louis business and philanthropic communities would consider.
Instead, they rallied behind Cardinal Ritter High, raising $30 million with the city’s archdiocese to construct a new school building and increase enrollment. When classes started at Cardinal Ritter last month, it became the first new private high school built within the St. Louis city limits in 50 years.
George J. Henry, the superintendent of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said relying on the business community to raise money to replace the 50-year- old building that housed the school and keep it located within the city was an unprecedented move.
But David Kemper, the chief executive officer of Commerce Bancshares, a $14 billion regional bank based in St. Louis, had faith.
“The business sector really wants to help, but it’s frustrated,” he said. Searching for academic models that work in urban education, he added, can be difficult.
With Cardinal Ritter, most believed that St. Louis was banking on a proven winner.
Since its founding in 1979, the school has graduated college-ready black students, many from underprivileged city neighborhoods. Students aren’t handpicked to attend the school, and some are accepted on academic probation.
In recent years, the 220-student school has had a 100 percent college-acceptance rate. Almost half the 2003 graduating class received scholarship offers, exceeding a total of $1.7 million.
For St. Louis, Mr. Kemper said, the business community was trying to find a model that would foster a critical mass of minority professionals to hire locally.
To that end, the St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation, which focuses its efforts on revitalizing the city, donated $2.5 million to endow scholarships and pay for an internship program for Cardinal Ritter students.
The program offers students paid internships with St. Louis companies, where they must commit to work for four years after college graduation.
The school is located at the edge of a part of the city that has been redeveloped into an entertainment and cultural area. Mr. Henry said he’s encouraged that Cardinal Ritter High will draw students from throughout St. Louis now. The school’s freshman class doubled to 105 students this year.
Mr. Henry also predicts a continued partnership between the archdiocese’s schools and the city’s business leaders.
“Their agenda isn’t Catholic schools,” he said. “It’s quality schools for all of our children.”