Cass Tech High and Detroit’s Renaissance

Graduating seniors point the way for a brighter future for the Motor City.

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Addressing the Cass Tech High School 2013 graduating class, 25 years after I graduated from the Detroit school, I asked how many were fans of Shonda Rhimes' hit ABC show "Scandal" starring Kerry Washington? Most of the 500 students raised their hands. The fictional characters on the show who are masters of the universe when it comes to political intrigue call themselves "gladiators in suits."

In front of me were hundreds of "gladiators in caps and gowns" who had mastered their own universe of struggling neighborhoods, high rates of teenage crime and dismal graduation statistics. If the United States is to maintain its strength over the next century, it will be because we create more students like these.

The graduation rate for Detroit Public High Schools in 2012 was 64 percent, a full 12 percent lower than the statewide rate, but 5 percent higher than Detroit's 2011 rate of high school completion. At Cass Tech, for decades one of the city's highest performing high schools, the graduation rate is over 94 percent. As the number of children living in poverty in the city has increased from 48.2 percent in 2008 to 57.3 percent in 2011 so has the number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch at Cass. While many of the city's more affluent families still send their children to Cass Tech, the school has reached Title I status with 57 percent of students now qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

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Middle school students compete to get into Cass Tech and judging by the stories Principal Lisa Phillips told at the commencement ceremony, they are ready to compete in college as well. These are not the high achieving students from low-income backgrounds who are not even applying to many of the nation's 238 top institutions of higher learning. According to Phillips, 98 percent of the graduating class has been accepted to an institution of higher learning, mostly four-year colleges and universities. Kendal Cockrel, one of the five valedictorians with perfect grade point averages, is on her way to Brown University; 25 students will attend the University of Michigan Ann Arbor with full scholarships; several are headed to Howard University and Morehouse and Spelman Colleges.

Phillips, who was my high school English teacher, has been principal for three years. In her first year, students received $18 million in scholarships; last year the number jumped to $27 million and this year's class received an eye-popping $40 million in scholarships for college. There were even two Gates Millennium Scholarship winners, Deon Mixon and Deangeli Jones, who will receive financial assistance throughout their academic careers.

The vast majority of Cass Tech students are members of minority groups, mostly African-American. There are also a large number of Muslim students, with several of the young ladies wearing the hijab, being cheered on by family members for their academic success. One of these seniors was singled out on stage for her academic success propelling her straight from high school to medical school, bypassing college.

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Students concentrate in curriculums such as Marketing & Entrepreneurship, Architecture & Design and Chemical Engineering, among others. My parents let me concentrate in Performing Arts as long as I met the Science & Arts math and science requirements. Though quite accomplished in academics, Cass Tech students aren't just nerds. The marching band played in President Obama's inaugural parade in January, there is a very successful dance troupe and the football team has won back-to-back state championships, unheard of for a Detroit public schools team.

It's always nice to come home, but too often the stories in Detroit are more about a city pockmarked by abandoned factories and vast swaths of territory bereft of streetlights at night. From time to time it is worth spending a morning surrounded by the bright lights of happy, hopeful students who are ready to take on the world. Detroit is experiencing a renaissance downtown that has yet to spread to the neighborhoods, but the "gladiators in caps and gowns" I shook hands with on Monday are among the city's best hopes for further revitalization and the nation's hope for global competitiveness.

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