Published October 25th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Anthony Madry has been principal of Central High School in Kansas City since June 2016, but he understands his role more broadly than his title.
“I’m the principal of the neighborhood, not just the school,” Madry says. “And this community is starting to come together.”
But he believes doing that requires the volunteer help of clergy in the area, which is why the Central (High School) Clergy Alliance exists. It’s made up of pastors from nearby churches and is open to clergy from non-Christians traditions, too, though so far only Christians have participated.
Central, on Indiana Avenue just south of Linwood Boulevard, is in ZIP Code 64128, part of the city that has seen much better times.
Recent data puts life expectancy in 64128 between 70 and 72 years, lower than in much of the rest of Kansas City.
The population in 64128 has been falling in recent years and the average value of a home there is less than $50,000, with median household income less than $25,000. Blacks make up more than 85 percent of the area’s population and nearly all of Central’s student body population, which has increased from about 330 when Madry came to 517 now.
Given all that, Madry has helped turn Central into a kind of community center to help students and their families succeed against sometimes long odds.
“When school starts every year the Clergy Alliance is here,” Madry says. Even in this strange pandemic time, alliance members started the school year by going throughout the building and praying for it and the students who would be connected to it, whether virtually or in person.
The Rev. Faith Allen, pastor of Jamison Temple Memorial Church and an alliance member, says her congregation essentially has adopted Central. Jamison is on Linwood just a block west of Central and was connected to the school in various ways even before Madry arrived from Texas to be principal.
Central students, says Allen, “are really ready to talk. And they want to be heard.” So when it was possible for students, faculty and visitors to be in the building, “I would walk from table to table at lunch and talk with students and develop a relationship.”
Madry is clear that he’s not promoting any specific religion and certainly not bringing in pastors so they can recruit members for their congregations.
He tells clergy, “It’s not your ministry to come to Central and try to build your congregation.” Rather, he says, clergy are there to guide students and respond to whatever needs they have.
For instance, Bishop Eric D. Morrison of Kingdom Word Ministries at 3301 Cypress Ave. has hosted “Breakfast with the Bishop” events at the school with male students.
Madry says that at the end of one such gathering, “I walked in and the kids didn’t want to go to class. I said, ‘Bishop, you have to let them go. They need to go to class.’ He was meeting with them and the conversation was so deep and rich that they didn’t want to let it go.”
Morrison says that “with the young men I meet with at Central, I make a point to say ‘I’m not here to do church.’ ” But without him even mentioning church or moral rules, he told me, “the young men say, ‘Will you pray for us?’ And I’m like ‘Really?’ The children are requesting it. We’ve witnessed that.”
Clergy and others also have helped with what Madry calls a “women’s empowerment group.” Last school year, 80 female students participated in a Friday night lock-in at which they were offered food, conversation and help with everything from health and beauty ideas to a better understanding of the role of women today.
Such events happen, Madry says, because Clergy Alliance members are self-starters.
“We had a school shooting Feb. 12, 2019,” he says. “On Feb. 13, I hadn’t had much sleep. I didn’t get home until 1:30 in the morning. I was back here at 5:30. My face was swollen, my eyes were puffy, I was tired. (Without Madry asking), the clergy just showed up at the lunch period. They prayed with me but they also were out in the lunchroom making sure that everything was going fine.”
All this is helping to create a more peaceful school.
“Last school year at the start of school,” Madry says, “we didn’t have a fight until the sixth week. The first fight that we had was a young man who came here and enrolled for two hours so he could look for a (specific) kid so he could fight him.”
Students, he says, now take it upon themselves to intervene when there’s tension and to tell others that Central students don’t fight in school. Most school fights, Madry says, involve girls, “but right now, Central has the least number of fights in the building among all the secondary comprehensive schools in the district. Part of that is that the girls know their worth now.”
Beyond the regular classrooms and clergy involvement, Central has made space for early childhood care for babies of students trying to finish their high school education. There’s even an office in the building staffed by attorneys from Legal Aid of Western Missouri to help Central families with such matters as evictions from their apartments or rental homes.
The goal, Madry says, is to bring the community together so students get a better chance at life. Since Madry came to Central, there has been increased attendance in such student activities as athletics, band and choir. A growing number of Central graduates now go to college with scholarships. And the graduation rate has increased each year.
Behind those statistics are such students as a young woman last school year who had three children cared for in the building’s nursery facilities. “When she got her diploma,” Madry says, “she screamed at the top of her lungs, ‘I made it. I had three kids here and I still made it.’ ”
That, Madry says, happens because “we work hard to change the narrative of our community.” And the partnership with area clergy is a big part of making that work.
Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.