When President Mark DeMarco speaks in public on behalf of De La Salle High School, he often prefaces his remarks by asking audience members what they think of when they hear the school's name.
"Someone in the crowd always says, 'athletics,'" he said. "That's the hook. Then I tell them, 'Now let me tell you what we do.'"
For all of De La Salle's success in sports -- the football program owns the national high school record for most consecutive victories, at 151 -- that hardly reflects the breadth of its impact.
"We educate the whole child," DeMarco said. "We stress academics, but we also stress being a good citizen -- taking care of the person next to you. There's a saying we use: 'Enter to learn, leave to serve.' We tell our kids to make the world a better place."
Actions speak louder than words, and there's no better example than the school's newest project: the launch of a middle school in the shadow of the Monument Corridor for boys of low-income families.
De La Salle Academy, funded by a generous gift from former Oakland A's owner Ken Hofmann, will begin operation in August at 1380 Galaxy Way in Concord. The school, which eventually will accommodate 60 boys in grades 5-8, will initially welcome 15 fifth-graders and 15 sixth-graders from families whose incomes are at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level (about $43,500 for a family of four).
"There's a perception that because a kid is poor he can't do the academics," DeMarco said. "We need to give these kids a chance. All they need is a structure."
The academy, modeled after the Nativity Miguel Network, will feature a rigorous academic curriculum with extended school hours, a summer program, active parental involvement, tutoring, adult mentors and an emphasis on community building. It will be a Catholic education, DeMarco said, but it's not just for Catholics.
Hofmann, who has pledged $5 million to fund the first five years, is no stranger to such philanthropy. The Community Youth Center in Concord sprang from his generosity. His relationship with De La Salle dates to a long-ago meeting with former football coach Bob Ladouceur that developed into an enduring friendship.
"When Ken came to us and said he wanted to do something more for education," DeMarco said, "I told him, 'Why don't you start your own school?'"
No student will attend for free -- buy-in is part of the philosophy -- but a sliding-scale participation fee will be nominal for an education valued at $12,000 per year. The only requirement of applicants, other than financial need, is that they show academic promise. Interviews with kids and their parents will weigh heavily in the selection process.
The school's graduates will be invited to apply to De La Salle High, but entry won't be automatic. All incoming students must take an entrance exam.
The goal of the program is to offer an escape for those trapped in a cycle of poverty. It's a philosophy already in place in the high school's Bishop Cummins Scholarship Program -- 5 percent of the student population comes from families in similar situations.
"We have a 100 percent graduation rate of those kids, and they go on to college," DeMarco said. "Three or four years ago, our valedictorian came out of that program."
Sure, De La Salle fields great sports teams. But it's not the only great thing the school does.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.