New life breathed into Detroit's Christ the King School as community rallies

Fr. John McKenzie of Christ the King Parish in Detroit welcomes students to the first day of classes at Christ the King Catholic School, Monday, Aug. 28. Alongside a new principal, Brittany Culkowski, Fr. McKenzie is hopeful that this will be a year of growth for the Detroit school. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Northwest Detroit school is experiencing a revival thanks to the generosity of supporters

DETROIT – When the doors opened Monday morning, Aug. 28, at Christ the King Catholic School in Northwest Detroit, students walked into a new school year and, in many ways, a fresh new school.

Over the past year, under the leadership of Fr. John McKenzie of Christ the King Parish in Detroit, the school has been experiencing a revival: fresh paint, a new chimney, a new library floor and, starting this school year, a brand new principal, Brittany Culkowski.

Culkowski comes to Detroit from Chicago, where she was a former teacher and then assistant principal in the Chicago area, first for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office of Catholic Schools, and then for charter schools.

Fr. McKenzie believes that under Culkowski, whose experience ranges from teaching to administration, the school will experience growth and a renewal of vitality.

Culkowski said that amidst all the changes, the overall goal is to celebrate belonging and faith among everyone who enters the school.

"I know for all of our teachers and faculty the goal is to have all of our students feel like they belong here, to instill a faith in our students, and the students that I have met prior to the school year and the families, they echo that," Culkowski to Detroit Catholic. "They feel like this is home, and they feel like everybody here is their family. That could be hard to find in some of the alternative neighborhood schools.”

The renewal has started in small ways, like a fresh website for the church, Fr. McKenzie said. However, alongside Culkowski, he is looking for ways to support the school's long-term viability.

“There's a lot that Fr. McKenzie and I are excited about: we're kind of this new fresh team coming into Christ the King," Culkowski said. "I think we're really excited to grow the school academically, socially, and emotionally. We have a great new teacher, Teron Varner, who will be our social-emotional learning teacher, and the students will have social-emotional learning every week.”

Additionally, Varner will lead restorative justice conversations for the parents, facilitating tough discussions, Culkowski said. The school has also added a new religion teacher, Connie Borg.

“I think a big goal of Fr. McKenzie and I is to bring the parish and the school together and engage the community,” Culkowsi said.

For Fr. McKenzie, his primary focus is on enrollment, fundraising and academics.

He said that the extended community – including the Archdiocese of Detroit, the City of Detroit and parishes located in metro Detroit – have already rallied around the school.

Culkowski comes to Christ the King from Chicago, where she worked 10 years as a teacher and administrator in both charter and Archdiocese of Chicago schools.
Culkowski comes to Christ the King from Chicago, where she worked 10 years as a teacher and administrator in both charter and Archdiocese of Chicago schools.

To continue the school's viability, one family donated funds to bring a school consulting company, the Mitler Consulting Group, to Christ the King.

The company will spend the next six months on-site helping the school implement best practices, Fr. McKenzie explained.

“I'm really excited about that because we can do a lot of the planning and the programming and say, ‘We should do this, we should do that.’ But when you have an outside group like Mitler come in, they can really put things in order as they should be,” Fr. McKenzie said. “St. Augustine says, ‘Peace is the tranquility of order.’ And so as long as the more we put things in order and use best practices, the better we will be for our future.”

Additionally, the school has been the recipient of several grants through the Archdiocese of Detroit, which have allowed them to repair the chimney and add a new state-of-the-art security system. Detroit Councilman James Tate also helped the school get a new concrete sidewalk.

As leadership in the city rallies around the school, so have underserved communities.

“There a lot of people out there that really want to see our school survive and thrive,” Fr. McKenzie added.

Better Way Detroit, an organized group of homeless men and women who give back to the city weekly, started by Fr. Marco Djonovic, moderator of the Trinity Family of Parishes, has come out to the school several times throughout the summer to do landscaping, painting, and general beautification of the school. Culkowski said that they decorated bulletin boards and cleaned up classrooms.

“When Better Way came out, it really highlighted that if the homeless don't forget about Christ the King, how can anybody forget about Christ the King?” Fr. McKenzie said. “If the homeless have not forgotten about us, nobody should.”

The community has rallied around the school, helping to upgrade and beautify the building. Detroit Councilman James Tate helped the school get a new sidewalk.
The community has rallied around the school, helping to upgrade and beautify the building. Detroit Councilman James Tate helped the school get a new sidewalk.

Within the school, Fr. McKenzie said that the lay leaders have been instrumental in keeping the doors open and ensuring it survives.

“There have been people on the ground who have been doing this for a long time," Fr. McKenzie said. "And the reason that the doors opened this fall is primarily because of these lay folks that have said, 'No, we're sticking here. We want the school to continue.'"

As a Catholic school, the first order of business is always to bring the Gospel to the families, Fr. McKenzie added.

“Our first mission is to form them into their own to understand the dignity of humanity, and we're forming them to understand that,” Fr. McKenzie said. “To give them that resource in life, but the primary resource is the Lord Jesus and this great church that he's offered us.”

Catholic education exists and should be accessible to all because it forms children and their families for the greater good of society, Fr. McKenzie explained. Christ the King is especially unique because it is a mission school that has the opportunity to engage the Black community and bring them into full communion with Christ in the Church.

“We are a Catholic school. Anything a Catholic does is universal. Though we're serving locally here in Northwest Detroit, we are serving the universal church throughout the world,” Fr. McKenzie said. “We want to be a place of unity, a place of bridge building.”


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