Building leaders motivation behind LaMarr Woodley’s new school

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News

Saginaw — Former Michigan All-American defensive end and NFL linebacker LaMarr Woodley made a career of taking ball carriers to school with punishing tackles.

So, perhaps opening a charter school may not seem such a stretch.

On Thursday, the stone-chiseled 6-foot-2, 265-pound schoolmaster hosted media members surrounded by his mother Janice Staples and father Terry Woodley in the gymnasium at the future home of The Woodley Leadership Academy, which is the former St. Stephen Catholic School, 1300 Malzahn St. The parochial building was shuttered in 2014 after merging with St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Woodley Leadership Academy will open in the fall for children in kindergarten through 5th grade. The tuition-free charter school is authorized by Eastern Michigan University for grades up through 8th, but Woodley plans to start K-5 and add a grade level each year.

LaMarr Woodley looks out at the football field at The Woodley Leadership Academy in Saginaw.

The move to launch a tuition-free charter academy fits the profile of an athlete who's never left his hometown in the rear-view mirror. 

Woodley, who retired in 2015 after a nine-year Pro Bowl career that included 110 games, 94 of those with the Steelers, has frequently answered the call for Saginaw's school children.

In 2012, he picked up a $60,000 tab for student athletic participation fees in the district through his foundation. Other philanthropic efforts have involved donating sweatshirts to Saginaw High band members for the 2012 Sugar Bowl involving his alma mater Michigan and Virginia Tech, handing out backpacks, free lunches and haircuts.

"When I was younger I always wished that people came back and gave back to the community," said Woodley, who was a member of Saginaw High's 2000 Division 2 state championship football team with former Michigan State standout and Lions wide receiver Charles Rogers. "I wished we would have seen some of the successful people come back.

"I said if I ever had a chance I was coming back." 

Education has always burned at the core of those community efforts.

Woodley linked up with charter manager ACCEL Schools' Bruce Henson, whom he heard about after Henson unsuccessfully tried to buy closed Saginaw Buena Vista High in an effort to launch a vocational academy.

ACCEL Schools, which is a subsidiary of Pansophic Learning, operates more than 40 charter academies, a bulk of which are in Ohio. The for-profit charter school management outfit runs Inkster Preparatory Academy and Global Preparatory Academy in Roseville.

LaMarr Woodley records a video on his phone while walking the halls at The Woodley Leadership Academy in Saginaw.

Henson found himself swept up in Woodley's enthusiasm.

"He is community-driven and he really cares about the kids," said Henson, ACCEL's national director of School Partnerships. "He wants that kid to have the best chance he can for an education. 

"LaMarr is not making any money from this. He is going to be committed. He is going to be at the school. He is going to be involved in some of the after-school programs. 

"It's going to be a little different than your average, 'I want my name out there ...' He's not that type of person."

Like the name implies, The Woodley Leadership Academy will focus on developing those directional qualities within students. Pupils will be required to wear uniforms and, on a specified day of the week, suits. 

Before- and after-school programs will explore reading, financial literacy/banking, foreign language, nutrition, drama and entrepreneurship.

The hallway will be adorned with mirrors where students will be able to self-reflect while taking in inspirational messages.

"I feel sometimes kids don't believe they are leaders," Woodley said. "We want to create more leaders and let everybody know that they are leaders. The more people who are leaders, the more confidence they are going to have. You are going to believe that you are a leader. You are going to start leading. Everybody is going to start to follow."

While walking along on a tour of the impeccably-maintained building, Woodley proclaimed the St. Stephen School green and gold colors and titan mascot will remain. The academy will lease the school from the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw.

Woodley plans to have his 11th annual football camp at the school.

"There's a lot of people who went to this school," Woodley said. "Why erase their history and their tradition?"

Twitter @larryo1961