Cardinal Ritter College Prep was established in 1979 by leaders in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, MO to provide Black students with the tools they need to succeed. And since the school opened its doors, it has been able to tell an amazing success story that includes 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rates, and an impressive list of alumni, including Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-MO) and Detroit Lions wide receiver Jameson Williams.
Studies have shown that when Black students have at least one Black teacher by third grade, they are 13 percent more likely to go to college. But in many schools around the country, Black students never have a teacher who looks like them. According to 2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 80 percent of public school teachers in this country identified as white, non-Hispanic. Only 7 percent identified as Black, and only 2 percent as Black men.
The Root spoke with Cardinal Ritter’s president Tamiko Armstead, about the secret to her school’s success.
Since taking over as president, Armstead, a proud Cardinal Ritter alum, has nearly doubled the number of Black male faculty and staff members from 20 to 40 percent. And she says the decision to recruit more Black men for the school was both intentional and necessary for her student body, which is nearly 95 percent African American. “[I had] my first Black male teacher was when I was a student here. This is a tradition,” she said. “We’ve always had a strong Black male presence because it was part of the mission when the doors opened. [The founders] knew it was a critical component to the success of the school.”
Armstead attributes the school’s perfect graduation and college acceptance rates to its mission, which includes faith, academic excellence and leadership. “Our goal is to help our students become the best version of themselves. They know early on that there will be a college application process. They know that the grades they make as freshmen will end up on their transcripts. So we set our standards high and stress them to each student,” she said.
She adds that much of the students’ success comes from the confidence that can be built when they are taught by people who look like them. “When you are setting the standards for students from the standpoint of high expectations and putting them in an environment of family and love, that’s really the secret recipe,” she said. “We have 54 different zip codes represented and dozens of public schools that pour into this school. Cardinal Ritter is a representation of the communities we serve.”
Although many of the students don’t identify as Catholic, Armstead says the faith component of Cardinal Ritter’s mission is never an issue. “We’re a faith-based school, and most our students come from families who pray. They may not all be Catholic, but they know the power of prayer and have a relationship with God.”
Since stepping into her leadership role at Cardinal Ritter, Armstead says she has felt an obligation to maintain the school’s amazing reputation. Not only because she’s the president, but because three of her five sons have attended the school as well. “Two of our sons are alumni and our third son is currently a student. So we believe in this mission for our family as well,” she said.
Armstead says she thinks that with the right focus, other schools can duplicate Cardinal Ritter’s success. “I really think that if all schools understood the population they are serving and ask what those kids need, they can accomplish the same things we’ve been able to accomplish,” she said.