Back in February, a sense of grief swept the entire New Orleans community when the Sisters of Blessed Sacrament, a Pennsylvania-based order, announced it would close the all-girls Xavier University Preparatory High School at the end of the school year due to uncertain financial sustainability. As many prepared to mourn the death of Prep as yet another failed black institution, the school’s alumni base wasn’t quite ready to deliver the eulogy. They couldn’t bear to see St. Katharine Drexel’s dream wither. They fought, fundraised and incorporated to preserve the school.
Attorney Shantell Payton, class of 1997, is the youngest Prepper among the coterie of six alumni who bought the school, along with Federal Judge Karen Wells Roby, Clerk of Court Dale Atkins, Judge Piper Griffin, attorney Keith Doley and Judge Edwin Lombard (including male alumni, a nod to the days when the school was co-ed). Payton’s allegiance and love for Prep is boundless. She chose to attend Prep over Benjamin Franklin High School, the number one ranked school in the state of Louisiana, reluctantly following in her sister’s footsteps.
When Payton was a freshman at Prep, her father died. Coupled with the loss of one of the most important people in her life and teenage angst, Payton said it was Prep that held her together during this trying time. She threw herself into her books and often hid out in the school library at night to avoid dealing with the absence of her father. Assistant-principal Jacob Owens, then the school’s disciplinarian, busted her on one of these occasions and escorted her home.
“My whole world was done. I felt such a great loss. I could have gone down the wrong path. My sister was close to Mr. Owens and she told him: ‘Please take care of my little sister,’” said Payton as she shared this emotionally gritty story. “I can’t imagine what kind of person I’d be today if it weren’t for Prep and Mr. Owens.”
Nearly a decade after finishing from Prep, in 2005, Payton was again faced with loss. Her fiancé died. She suffered a stroke and was forced to drop out of law school.
“I didn’t want to go forward, but it was on that same strength, morality and confidence that was previously instilled in me that I had no choice but to excel, to be my best. Even in those times of pitfalls, I was able to excel because of that Prep foundation,” she said. “Having the support system led by Mr. Owens who confirmed the level of expectation and morality that would require me to be excellent in all that I do has stuck with me. I call him my father.”
Thanks to these six people, my alma mater will return for the 2013-2014 school year — and moving forward — as St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory High School, an independent run Catholic school supported by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The news was delivered Monday evening to a standing room only crowd of Prep alumni and supporters in the school’s auditorium, known as the Drexel Center. Elected officials like Congressman Cedric Richmond, New Orleans City Council president Stacy Head and New Orleans City Council member LaToya Cantrell turned out to celebrate the news.
Saved by black alumni for black students under black leadership, a school owned and run by native New Orleanians is an anomaly in the post-Katrina landscape; where outsiders — non-New Orleanians — dominate the education reform efforts in the city. We, the collective we, stepped up and saved ourselves; an aspect that makes this victory all the more sweeter.
This is what self-determination looks like.
What a great example for current students and future Preppers to know that they are a part of a lineage of triumph, not defeat and educational descendants of Drexel’s mission to provide high-quality education to society’s most vulnerable.
Historically black institutions are part of the black American tradition going back generations; and now more than ever, they need us to support them in deep, meaningful ways. We must rally around them not just in times of economic strife or when a closure looms, but all the time. We owe them because not only were they there for us during the struggle; they educated us through it.
And we have high expectations of our black institutions too. We want them to serve us with love — and educational excellence too. With the resurrecting of Xavier Prep, now Drexel Prep, we have preserved a vestige of black Catholic education in New Orleans.
Payton said Prep is like a machine that takes young girls, in their purest state, and molds them into a beautiful package instilling values, wisdom and sisterhood.
“How can I allow that to be taken away from any woman?” Payton asked. “Young girls not having access to that blessing wasn’t an option for me.”
jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. She is currently communications coordinator for Service Employees International Union Local 21LA. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis.