MEET RFK AWARD WINNER RICHARD CLARK, Founding President of Saint Martin de Porres High School 

In 2003, shortly after deciding to open Saint Martin de Porres in a vacant elementary school, Richard Clark was driving through the neighborhood of Cleveland that his school planned to serve. As he took in the poverty in which many residents lived in the forgotten neighborhood, Clark was overcome with the feeling that “this could not be what God intended.”

This year, Clark, the founding President of Saint Martin de Porres, Cleveland’s Cristo Rey Network High School, is retiring after changing his community, sparking transformation in the city, and serving as a true leader in the school, and across the city and country. On May 2, Schools That Can honored Clark with the 2018 RFK Urban Education award for School Leaders. Saint Martin de Porres High School was Clark’s and the community’s response to the educational injustice in Northeast Ohio.

“I had taught for 15 years,” says Clark of what compelled him to pursue school leadership. “And felt I could really help students better if I could work forming and coaching the adults in a school who would in turn affect the students.” As the story goes, Clark was spending a week visiting schools in Lima, and became exasperated with hours of conversation about if and how the model could be applied in the United States. “I could start a school with the time it is taking you all to talk about it,” Clark declared in a moment of despair. “Then why don’t you?” a member of the team countered. 

So he did just that. “After a year of preparation, planning, and hiring, we opened Saint Martin de Porres High School and I welcomed 105 freshmen to our school!” Clark said. Clark opened the fifth Cristo Rey High School in what is now a thriving national network of thirty-two schools.  Today, SMDP serves 400 students and has had 741 students graduate. Fifty-five of those alumni have graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree, five have advanced degrees, and 319 alumni are currently enrolled in college.

The school’s educators and investment in supports like clinical counseling, college counseling, alumni support, food service, and extracurriculars enable students’ success. This includes a powerful commitment to real-world learning. “I love baseball and have played on all levels up to semi-pro. I coached high school baseball for 15 years. I never learned much about baseball in a classroom and I never coached much in a classroom,” says Clark by way of explaining why real-world learning is important to education. “I could lecture until I am blue in the face but that wouldn’t help a shortstop field a ground ball hit to his left.  We are asking our students more and more today not to repeat facts, but rather, develop skills that will help them solve a problem or look critically at an issue before them,” he continues. “We have little idea of what facts will be needed 10 years from now or even what jobs will exist! John Dewey’s philosophy of learning by doing rather than passively absorbing is as true today as it was in the early part of the 20th century.”

One key element of this approach is community partnerships: Clark asks leaders in the Cleveland business community to acknowledge the crisis the city is facing and invest in a solution by partnering with SMDP to help fund the school and host interns. Clark has convinced local leaders to welcome young people who have drive and potential, but whose financial circumstances have limited access to educational and professional opportunities. This has been an opportunity to build a network through the Corporate Work Study Program, which trains students and sends them to work to fund their educations, but also trains supervisors who work for corporate partners, arming them with tools for communicating with adolescents and helping them reach for success. Every year, strong relationships develop between students and supervisors who wouldn’t have crossed paths if not for the program. As a result, these relationships often turn into career and networking opportunities that are crucial as students graduate high school, head on to college, and eventually enter the workforce.

One of the fundamentals of Clark’s work throughout his career is using education as a call-to-action to fight for justice. “I can ask a student to solve a data analysis problem by drilling in the problem-solving techniques of such a problem or I can engage the student with a real-world problem that directly affects them and the latter will lead to true learning,” Clark says.  “Our society’s social problems do not simply exist. They are a result of systems, plans and business decisions that lead to the mess our cities are in.”

“The solutions to the social injustice and the lack of freedom and decency in our society is only going to come by encouraging our young people not to accept what we have but develop true solutions and ways of changing our situation,” Clark concludes. “ The notion of education as developing compliance and obedience is really what Paola Friere said…the pedagogy of the oppressed!”

This month, Clark celebrates retirement after a career that has helped transformed a community, and SMDP will continue to grow and serve the community. As for Clark’s personal mission? “Change the world!” he says.