photo546With faith, vision, determination –and a generous gift of $25,000 seed money, Archbishop John Ireland broke ground in 1898 for a Catholic secondary school in Minneapolis. At the time, the population of Minneapolis was increasing rapidly, neighborhoods filling with immigrant families from other parts of the world. Many of Minnesota’s newest citizens spoke limited English and had no job, but they were willing to find work wherever they could and assimilate as best possible to their new home.   For many, their assimilation was grounded among the communities of newly-built Catholic parishes in Minneapolis neighborhoods.   Those with children soon were looking for a school, preferably a Catholic school.
Ireland had one stipulation for the new school on Nicollet Island: that it be run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, informally known as the Christian Brothers. The Archbishop knew of the Brothers’ particular calling to educate the poor and working classes in any part of the world in which they worked. They were a perfect fit for the largely immigrant families that would enroll children at the new school on Nicollet Island. The Brothers received Ireland’s request at their regional headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri and agreed to send a group of teachers and educators up the Mississippi River. More than a century later, Ireland’s vision – mirrored by the Lasallian vision of the earliest Brothers — sustains DeLaSalle High School and its commitment to educate kids from all neighborhoods of the Twin Cities, regardless of background. Some current students are fourth- or fifth-generation Islanders, their family tree now firmly planted in Minnesota soil.
It took only a few months after groundbreaking to prepare the “DeLaSalle Institute” building for occupancy. Fifty boys in grades nine and ten joined three teaching Christian Brothers in the new school in October 1900. The number of pupils rapidly expanded, and by spring, a fourth Brother had arrived to handle the “overcrowding.” By 1907, an addition had been added to the original building, and in 1914, Archbishop Ireland purchased the adjoining King property to provide space for eventual expansion. Enrollment stood at 352 boys, the school having grown seven times over in 14 years.

In those days, DeLaSalle was a commercial school, preparing young men to work in the trades and growing industries of Minneapolis. Owing to this history and its classroom structures, the original building was eventually called the “commercial building,” shortened to “C Building” eventually. Through the work of Brother Heraclian, the first graduating class, 13 members strong in 1903, all received positions with the leading business firms of Minneapolis before graduating.

By 1920, parents were calling for a high school that was primarily college preparatory. So Archbishop Dowling, Ireland’s successor, went to all Minneapolis Catholic parishes to raise the $200,000 needed to build a new wing to meet the academic needs of a growing enrollment. This wing was built on the former King property, adjacent to the existing commercial building. Construction began in May 1922, and within a year, the new DeLaSalle High School building (today known as the “B Building”) had opened, with a new main address of 25 West Island Avenue that stood for more than 70 years.photo554

Within six years, the college preparatory DeLaSalle was accredited by both the University of Minnesota and the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. (North Central eventually became AdvancEd, the agency still accrediting DeLaSalle after nearly 90 years .) By the 1930s, the school had earned a statewide reputation for superior education of young men. During this time, the Islanders also earned athletic renown, under legendary coach George Roberts. In 1931, De captured the National Catholic High School Basketball Championship.

photo508Throughout the Great Depression and war years, DeLaSalle and the Christian Brothers remained true to the Lasallian mission of educating young people, regardless of socio-economic or personal background. A true story is told of a young man whose father lost his plumbing business in the Depression. His mother came to see Brother Cassian, the director, to withdraw her son, because the family could not afford the $80.00 tuition charged in 1933-34. “How much can you afford?” asked Brother Cassian. “If we sacrifice, we could possibly come up with half of that,” replied the mother. “Then that is what you will pay,” replied the Brother Director.

This type of story more and more became the norm in these lean years. To make this type of “budgeting” work, the Brothers at DeLaSalle – who made up more than 90 percent of the teaching staff and lived in community on campus — often went without pay, depending upon the kindness of neighbors and parishes for enough food to get through each week. The credo came from St. John Baptist de La Salle himself, who told the earliest Brothers in 17th century France: “Pass the basket. If you have more than enough food, put some in.   If you don’t, take some out.”

By the summer of 1950, the Christian Brothers moved into their new residence facing Grove Street. To this day, the Brothers live in the community on the top two floors of the building; the first floor houses the school’s Development, Alumni, and Admissions offices. After World War II, enrollment doubled to over 800 by 1952. Because the buildings could no longer adequately support the growing enrollment, De acquired a public school building in south Minneapolis – the Wentworth building – and taught all ninth graders there until 1959. Only students in grades 10-11-12 were educated on Nicollet Island.

DeLaSalle dominated Minnesota high school athletics in the 1950s. State championships in all sports were common. No opponent could even score a point against the undefeated 1953 football champs. The 1959 baseball team won a state championship, then reformed as a summer American Legion team and won a national championship. A new legend, Dick Reinhart, coached six state championship teams in basketball.

Post-war baby boomers were filling Catholic elementary schools beyond capacity, and De was regularly forced to turn away hundreds of applicants. In response, the Brothers were asked to open Benilde High School for boys in St. Louis Park, soon to become an arch-rival through most of the 1960s and 1970s. DeLaSalle parents expressed a desire to bring all four grades together on Nicollet Island, as well as provide more modern classrooms and the first stand-alone gymnasium in school history. A new addition opened in September 1959 (today still known at the “A Building”). With three classroom buildings in use, all students were together at one location.

Peak enrollment was 1651 boys in 1964; DeLaSalle was regularly receiving twice as many applications as they had spaces in ninth grade. As they had in the 1950s, the Archdiocese asked the Christian Brothers to open Grace High School in Fridley, soon to become an arch-rival thorough much of the 1970s and 1980s. Because of many reasons – multiple options for Catholic high schools, a rather sudden decline of post-baby-boom students in Minneapolis elementary schools, suburban sprawl among others — DeLaSalle’s enrollment dipped below 1000 by the end of the 1960s. In February 1971, the original commercial building burned to the ground, and there was no need to replace the structure. The area of the original building, on Grove and West Island, is now called Founder’s Park, and a statue of St. John Baptist de La Salle stands in this park.

Also in 1971, the archdiocese closed the all-girl St. Anthony of Padua High School in northeast Minneapolis. Several months later, and with DeLaSalle’s enrollment in a bit of a freefall (losing 12-16 percent a year), The diocese recommended that DeLaSalle open its enrollment to girls in order to sustain enrollment and to help accommodate the needs of St. Anthony of Padua families. Many Catholic grade schools either closed or merged during this time, as well. By 1975, enrollment at the now co-educational DeLaSalle had dipped to 475 students, a decline of nearly 1200 students in 12 years.

Many believed during the 1970s that DeLaSalle would also close. Programs were cut, deficits were building, and families were either moving or sending their children out of the city. Though the challenges were plentiful, the Brothers reaffirmed their commitment to DeLaSalle and the historic mission, even as more and more of the faculty were drawn from lay men and women. No longer could the financial assistance program merely come from “Brothers going without” and the school started a new approach to sustain its mission.

Due to the fortitude and leadership of successive chief administrators, Brother Cyril Litecky and Brother Basil Rothweiler, the school launched a comprehensive Development Office to build relationships and raise funds for the school. The centerpiece was the Annual Giving Campaign, working with a loyal base of alumni and friends to help offset operating costs and provide financial assistance to students in need. One of the first donors was the very same alumnus from the 1930s whose family couldn’t afford $80.00 yearly tuition. From the mid-1970s forward, he made up the difference – and then some – with his support of DeLaSalle.

Stabilized somewhat by new Development income through the 1980s, De began adding back programs that had been cut through the years. A new Dean of Students, Barry Lieske, was hired in 1982 to help bridge the return from modular scheduling to a more traditional schedule for the students, with a renewed focus on regular prayer and service. Finances were somewhat better, but enrollment rose and then fell with demographic shifts, reaching a 70-year low of 306 students in 1990-91.

A 1955 alumnus of De, Brother Michael Collins, returned in 1991-92 as school president (or Chief Executive Officer). Under his leadership, the school successfully completed two separate capital campaigns on either end of the decade, raising $9.5 million for facilities and endowed financial assistance programs. First, the school restored the architecture of its 1922 auditorium/cafeteria (now called the Florance Center) and renovated the first floor of the “B building.” Two major building projects were to follow: De built the Albers Atrium, nestled between the “A building” and ”B building” and centralized office areas, created a new main entry to the school, added classroom space where once there were offices, and enhanced traffic flow. In 2002, DeLaSalle added the L.L. Gray Gymnasium, while renovating “A building” infrastructure and classrooms.

Among the more noteworthy additions of Brother Michael’s tenure was promoting Barry Lieske to principal, granting him authority as Chief Operating Officer. For 19 years, the two worked side-by-side as CEO and COO for the school. Nary a decision was made without at least one (and usually both) involved.   Other area administrators in ministry, admissions, finance, activities and development stayed as colleagues in the longest (and perhaps most stable) era of administrative leadership in DeLaSalle’s history.

The school again prospered. Enrollment climbed steadily each year. By 2007-08, DeLaSalle had 665 students; had balanced the operating budget for each of ten years; and raised over $20 million through annual and capital giving. Though the 2008 recession affected many families (and had a hand in reduced enrollment back to 595 students by 2011), the school planned appropriately and budgets remained balanced. De even opened its first-ever on-campus athletic field in 2009, thanks to a $3 million major gift from alumnus Skip Maas `58, the largest single gift in school history. As the economy improved, enrollment began to build again. Even when Brother Michael suddenly became ill and died in January, 2012, the stable administrative team continued moving the fortunes of the school forward.

The DeLaSalle Board of Trustees hired Barry Lieske as president in May, 2012. During his tenure as president, enrollment has surged forward once more, rebounding from the recession and reaching a 44-year high of 760 students in 2015-16. Students from all parts of the Twin Cities (over 115 grade schools) are again coming to De. Over 400 applications are submitted for 200 places in the ninth grade. The operating budget is still balanced, and the school manages a $2.9 million financial assistance program that serves slightly more than half of its students with reduced tuition.

Lieske and principal, Jim Benson, oversee a college preparatory curriculum and academic program.  Over 98 percent of De’s graduates are matriculating to colleges across the country each year, including the “most selective” schools. DeLaSalle was among the first in Minnesota to implement a 1:1 technology initiative, distributing iPads to every student, and implementing innovative programs in cloud technology and communication.

The school has tripled its Advanced Placement course offerings, and AP and ACT composite scores are at their highest levels ever. The latest innovation, the Global Advantage Program, introduces students to academic and service travel opportunities around the world. In athletics and fine arts competition, the school has won 12 state team and 15 state individual championships since 2000.

On May 19, 2015, DeLaSalle broke ground on its latest facility upgrade, the construction of a new Center for Innovative Learning (CIL). This $8.8 million project presents an opportunity to redesign the campus and do something that is long overdue:  replace locker and weight rooms in the middle of the campus with modern and multi-dimensional classroom space.  When the CIL opens in August 2016, the hub of the campus will provide flexible spaces for creative, activity- and project-based learning, spaces for multi-media production and inter-departmental instruction, and resources for enhanced use of emerging technologies in all academic fields.  Upgrading the technology available to students with the learning spaces themselves will enhance the current 1:1 technology program and college and career preparatory curriculum.  With all the information in the world available to students on a tablet or computer, they will take the lead in discovery, research, collaboration, connection across curriculum, and relevant applications of knowledge.  This project will be funded entirely from a separate capital campaign, the “Gateway to the Future” funding initiative which already includes three lead gifts of $1,000,000 or more.

St. John Baptist de La Salle … pray for us!

Live, Jesus, in Our Hearts… forever!