Michael Debri Honored with Michael Pressley Award for Excellence in Catholic Education
Do you have what it takes to be a saint?
At All Saints Academy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Principal Michael Debri is heading up a vital mission to make sure his students do.
“Forming saints to serve all” is the school’s shared purpose, he says. “My role and the role of the school comes in the ‘forming’ piece of that. The kids can’t do it on their own. And really the teachers, staff, community . . . and I can’t do it on our own. We need each other more than relying on any one individual.”
Michael, a member of ACE 16 (Memphis) and the 11th cohort of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, is one of two recipients of the Michael Pressley Award for Excellence in Catholic Education. He received the award for his commitment to inclusion, the communal dimensions of Catholic schools, and a strong relationship with ACE’s Program for Inclusive Education. The award is given annually to two graduates of the ACE Teaching Fellows program who have distinguished themselves in making significant contributions to the ministry of Catholic Education.
A friend of his sister encouraged Michael to look into ACE as he finished his undergraduate work at Central Michigan University. Michael, a lifelong Notre Dame subway alum, came away intrigued.
‘She said, “Just check it out… it’s called ACE,” Michael says. “I went home that night and knew it was what I was being called to do. The Holy Spirit was definitely chirping in my ear.”
Michael listened. “ACE Teaching Fellows is first and foremost a service program. And that’s no surprise as the role of a teacher is to serve. Once you are on campus that first summer, the people you meet, the relationships you build, the community that’s revealed… it’s so powerful. I saw it as a great opportunity to do something bigger than myself,” says Michael.
Relationships and community have always been a driving force in Michael’s life: from family, to school, to the extended family of teachers and friends.
“What ACE did was more clearly articulate the importance of relationships–why they’re important as Catholics,” Michael says. “Just look at the greatest example of relationship: The Trinity. We have a God who is relational. That’s who God is. And so, we can’t not be in relationship with others. When you’re in community with others who have a common mission and common goals . . . when you work together . . . anything is possible.”
After ACE, Michael wanted to continue serving others. “I really enjoyed being around kids, helping them learn, helping them reach their full potential, and hopefully being a good example for them,” he says. “I go back to the example that I saw from my parents . . . their service mentality. So, I asked, is this what the Lord wants of me? Is this where I’m needed?”
Michael says, “I am kind of a ‘wherever the Spirit takes me’ kind of person.” When an opportunity opened up in his hometown of Grand Rapids, he moved from teaching third grade in Memphis to serving as assistant principal at All Saints Academy, and he entered the Remick Leadership Program in 2012.
“Remick provided great relationships with great educators across the country that continue to this day,” Michael said. “They are some of the first people I go to with issues or questions. Participating in Remick enriched all the work I do as a school leader.”
Michael doesn’t wake up every day asking himself how he can make a difference. “I think I wake up every day open to any opportunities that might arise,” he says. Whether it be helping out in the lunchroom, problem solving with teacher and parents, or meeting with Catholic education investors, Michael rises to each day’s opportunities.
As part of his firm commitment to inclusion, Michael advocates for all children to have the school’s doors opened to them. “Education has the ability to change the trajectory of someone’s life, and Catholic education can change the trajectory of your soul. When that applies to everybody--no matter their differences in abilities, economic standpoint, or where they come from--you have to recognize the power in that,” Michael says.
He believes weaving faith into that education model makes it a complete, unstoppable package. “How can you rob somebody of that opportunity because they might be a little different? Opening our doors to everybody and providing that education is the most Catholic thing we can do,” says Michael, “At All Saints Academy, we have always extended welcome to any student who walks through the door. We sit down with the parents and talk about what we can do to get their child to where he or she needs to be. That mentality is important but it can’t stop there. It starts with a culture of being inclusive, but then you have to back it up with resources. I can’t tell you how blessed we have been with both our faculty and staff who are on the frontlines and those behind the scenes investing in All Saints Academy on behalf of our students.”
Ultimately, Michael asks himself the question, “How can we do our best to help these little ones understand that they are a saint in the eyes of God?”
They, no matter their own talents, abilities, or even challenges–can always go out into their communities with service on their minds, says Michael. “One of our root beliefs at All Saints Academy is We Can All Grow. We’re constantly forming and transforming our students and they are doing the same for us. Our mission statement calls us to partner with our parents, parishes, and communities to develop the whole child. Partnership is just another way of saying relationship.”
And all this work is in service to the shared mission of All Saints Academy: Forming saints to serve all. It’s a bold statement and challenge, but Michael doesn’t shy away from it. “It is a strong word, but we are all called to be saints as we are called to be a witness for Christ. Our kids might not understand the strength it takes to be a saint. Our kids might not understand that we can all be saints. It’s not just reserved for the people who have ‘Saint’ in front of their name. Yes, it is a powerful word, but it’s attainable for our kids because a saint is a witness for Christ. A saint is someone who puts others before themselves. They are capable of being that for others.”