Two Leo alums join forces to revive a premiere South Side school

By Krystina Iordanou
Medill Reports

Straightening ties, tucking in shirts, and welcoming young men to the “brotherhood” is an opening day tradition for Dan McGrath, Leo High School president, who greets the young men individually as they arrive for their first day of school.

It’s a tradition that McGrath has continued for nearly 10 years since he became president of Leo High School. McGrath graduated from the all-boys Catholic school in 1968 and went on to pursue a career in sports journalism. In 1996, he landed a job with the Chicago Tribune, but after the paper was sold to Sam Zell in 2007, McGrath considered a career change at a time when Leo High School was struggling to keep its doors open.

“I felt it was a calling for me. I woke up one morning with a feeling of great clarity and I said I need to do this,” McGrath explained.

For the last 94 years, Leo High School has anchored West 79th Street and South Sangamon Street in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, where it serves young men from Chicago’s South Side and western suburbs. Leo’s neighborhood has seen significant change since the 1960s, resulting in the heightened crime rate detrimental to enrollment numbers during the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to McGrath.

“I think it would be a tremendous loss to Auburn-Gresham if Leo were to go away. We’re very conscious of our role in the community and we try to be as supportive as we can,” said McGrath.

Leo High School enrollment declined to as low as 120 students but has grown 40% over the past four years.

The Auburn-Gresham community has experienced over 900 violent crimes this year, according to the Chicago Police Department crime database.

However, the surrounding violence has not impacted the spirit of the school that doesn’t use metal detectors or employs security guards.

“I think there is grudging respect and admiration for what we do. The neighborhood really understands we’re trying to help these guys get a foot in the door and get their lives off to a good start,” said McGrath.

McGrath has made community and alumni outreach a priority for Leo High School. Nearly half of his current faculty and staff are Leo graduates and he credits them for much of Leo’s success in “preparing young men for life.”

This is especially true for Leo High School principal Shaka Rawls, a graduate of the class of 1993 whom McGrath hired in the fall of 2016.

“What Leo stands as is basically a stabilizing factor in this community,” said Rawls, who worked as a school and community administrator in the Chicago Public Schools before coming home to Leo. “What we stand for is that we’re one thing that is always going to be consistent. It’s always going to be a staple.”

Despite McGrath and Rawls attending Leo during different eras, their like-minded ideology, methodology, and forward-thinking goals stand as a transitional piece of the old and the new coming together to create change, Rawls said.

“All the people they are bringing here like Principal Rawls, alumni, coaches or teachers are making Leo stronger and getting exposure out to the Chicago city,” said Aurora Latifi, who is in her 18th year as a Leo mathematics teacher.

The recent success of the school stems from the integration of alumni that have kept the school open for nearly 95 years.

Leo High School advertises the success of its current and former students all throughout the building.

“The spirit of Leo is very strong. It’s across generations, it crosses race. When you’re a Leo man, you’re a Leo man for life,” said McGrath.

Under the guidance of both McGrath and Rawls, “the brotherhood” will continue to grow this year. Leo currently has 180 young men enrolled in the school, including its largest freshman class in 15 years. Of those 180 students, 95% will receive a scholarship or financial aid this school year.

Photo at top: Embracing “The Brotherhood” of success has become a rewarding tradition for the school. (Krystina Iordanou /MEDILL)