In less than two months, Shakina Russell will walk out the shiny new doors of Lewis Cass Technical High School for the last time as a high school student. About two and a half months after graduation day, she will realize the dream she’s held since eighth grade – experiencing first-hand how great it is to be a Michigan Wolverine.

Angela Cesere
High school senior Shakina Russell stands in the guidance suite at Lewis Cass Technical High School last month. Russell, who wants to be an anesthesiologist, will move to campus for her freshman year at the University this fall. (EMMA NOLAN-ABRAHAMIAN/Dai

Russell, who wants to be an anesthesiologist, is a senior at Cass Tech, Detroit’s largest public magnet high school. The student body is 95-percent black. The same percentage will go on to post-secondary education.

Over the past ten years, Cass has sent more underrepresented minorities to the University than any other high school.

Since 2001, more than 10 percent of all black freshmen at the University have been Cass Tech graduates.

Why do so many Cass Technicians become Wolverines? The answer lies in a recruiting relationship that reaches back more than 35 years.

“U-M and MSU think this is their school,” said Doris Walls, director of the high school’s guidance and counseling department.

For years, the University of Michigan consistently attracted more Cass Tech seniors than any other school, University officials said. Today, though, more seniors from Cass Tech attend MSU.

It’s not just in-state schools competing for these students. Cass Tech students’ strong academic performances draw recruiters from across the country, including Ivy League representatives eager to attract the top minority applicants.

“I got a lot of letters from a lot of people,” said Cass senior Jonathon Ray, who will enroll at the University in the fall.

He added that he was recruited by Purdue, Yale and several private schools, but only applied to the University of Michigan because it was his childhood dream to be a Wolverine.

The school has received two of the U.S. Department of Education’s Blue Ribbon awards, a mark of excellence in secondary education. Cass students average 19 on the ACT – a full three points higher than the Detroit average – and many have several Advanced Placement credits under their belt by graduation day.

According to Tyrone Winfrey, director of the University’s Detroit Admissions Office, the University wins so many Cass students because recruiters make it a point to be highly visible in the halls of the high school throughout the year.

In addition to holding presentations about the University aimed at Cass seniors, the recruiters talk with younger students about the benefits of attending college and offer individual advising appointments. They also schedule trips to campus so students can see the University firsthand.

“Part of our mission is to be accessible and visible in Detroit,” Winfrey said.

Most important, Winfrey said, is developing personal relationships with principals, counselors, teachers and parents in addition to students.

He said recruiters often go back three or more times to help establish these relationships, which is especially critical for urban students who are first generation of their families to attend college. In the suburbs, recruiters are not as visible within the schools – often doing one presentation and sending a follow-up e-mail.

“It takes a lot more legwork” to recruit in Detroit than in the suburbs, Winfrey said.

One of Winfrey’s assets is his own history. A Cass Tech alum, he has a fierce allegiance to the school and is not seen as an outsider when he recruits. He said his goal is to help students get into a good college, not just the University of Michigan.

“You have the responsibility of taking a student from one chapter of their life to another,” he said.

For Russell, the short 45-minute drive home combined with relatively affordable in-state tuition and the University’s reputation convinced her that Ann Arbor was the right choice.

As a magnet school, Cass is able to mandate higher academic standards than other high schools. Students must pass a district-wide test to be admitted to the school and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average to stay.

However, according to Principal George Cohen, student selection isn’t the only factor that allows Cass students to achieve. He stressed the importance of a safe environment, parental and teacher involvement and a rigorous curriculum, as well as the legacy of the school’s graduates.

“When there’s a reputation of excellence and prominence, the school is a step ahead,” Cohen said.

But Cass must provide these services at a much lower cost than many suburban schools. As a Detroit public school, it receives much less public funding per student than schools in Detroit suburbs like Birmingham and Southfield. This forces high school administrators to sacrifice certain things like band uniforms. Cohen said most band members march in T-shirts and sweatpants. Sometimes, lack of funding affects academic resources, limiting the use of technology in the classroom and forcing students to share textbooks.

Yet even without these resources, Cohen said, Cass still manages to challenge its students. It offers 11 AP and honors classes and requires two years of foreign language, four years of English and three years of math, science and social studies.

Russell testified to the rigor of the curriculum, especially in her AP Calculus class. “When I get a ‘C’ on a test, I want to kiss the paper,” she said.

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