Photo courtesy of Cristo Rey Network
Cristo Rey: Schools that work
With demanding academics and an innovative work-study program, Cristo Rey Catholic schools have thrived, sending thousands of disadvantaged students to college and creating a new and sustainable model of Catholic education.
April 10, 2012 | In 1993, the Jesuits in Chicago wanted to expand their presence in two neighborhoods long plagued by poverty and gang violence, Pilsen and Little Village. Home to successive waves of immigrants -- first Germans and Irish, then Czechs and other Eastern Europeans -- the neighborhoods have been predominately Mexican-American since the 1960s.
When the Jesuits went door-to-door surveying the area, they found that parents craved good schools for their children. More than anything, they wanted a college preparatory school that would succeed where the local public schools were failing.
So three years later, in a community where most students never graduate, the Jesuits launched Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a demanding college prep academy. In an era when many Catholic schools struggle to stay open, few would have been surprised if Cristo Rey had quickly shuttered.
Instead, Cristo Rey has thrived. Since opening in 1996, the school has not only sent thousands of students to college; it has also created an innovative and financially sustainable model of Catholic education that is being replicated across the nation. Cristo Rey Jesuit High School was the cornerstone of what would become the Cristo Rey Network, an association of 24 schools that provides a quality Catholic education to young people in urban communities with limited educational opportunities.
Questions to consider:
- Cristo Rey is about a mission rooted in faith, about helping people for sacred reasons. How does your organization keep sacredness and faith at the core of its mission? How does it keep that link vital for staff and others?
- How could you apply the Jesuits' model of listening deeply to people to learn about the needs and wants of those whom you serve?
- What big problem in your church, organization or community do you assume has no solution? How could you solve it anyway?
- Cristo Rey is an example of networking. How do you ensure that your network includes new perspectives and people?
Today, 6,900 students, mostly Hispanic and African-American, are enrolled in Cristo Rey Network schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
How successful are they?
Last year, every member of the Cristo Rey class of 2011 nationwide was accepted into a two- or four-year college. For the classes of 2008 through 2010, 85 percent enrolled in college, far above the matriculation rate for all high school students nationally, and more than twice the rate for African-American and Hispanic students. After two years, almost all -- 88 percent -- are still in school. They don’t drop out.
The key to Cristo Rey’s success is a work-study initiative pioneered at that first Cristo Rey school. Under the program, students work at paid internships five days a month in law firms, banks, hospitals and other professional settings. The internships not only introduce students to the workplace; they generate revenue -- currently about $32 million a year -- that covers the majority of the students’ education.
“If the [work-study program] just helped the schools be more financially sustainable, then it would be a success,” said Chris Tessone, the director of finance at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational think tank that employs two students from Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Washington, D.C. “But it also furthers the schools’ mission.”
Cristo Rey was built for young people like Andy Laureano. Now 23, he remembers gang violence as a fact of life growing up in Little Village.
“There was a drive-by [shooting] on our street,” he recalled. “Six bullets penetrated our house. I remember cops beating up gangbangers in front of the house.”
Longing to escape the neighborhood, Laureano saw education as a path out. As a middle schooler, he attended science classes on Saturdays at the University of Illinois-Chicago, in part just to be somewhere else.
“You have to get away,” he said.
After graduating from Cristo Rey Jesuit in 2006, Laureano did get away, earning a scholarship from the University of San Francisco and graduating with a degree in English. Today, he works for the Cristo Rey Network and is considering a career in education.
“Cristo Rey was life-changing for me,” he said.
Getting to the point where Cristo Rey could deliver that kind of transformative education was no easy journey, said Robert Birdsell, the president and CEO of the Cristo Rey Network. In the beginning, the biggest obstacle was simply figuring out how to fund a Catholic high school and keep it going.
“Sustainability is a huge issue for Catholic schools,” Birdsell said. “Half of Catholic schools have closed over the past 50 years.”
As the number of priests and nuns has declined nationwide, parochial schools have lost the inexpensive labor they once provided and have had to cope with skyrocketing personnel and other costs. For those who were planning the first Cristo Rey, the financial challenges were even greater. The parents of their target students -- almost three-quarters of Cristo Rey Network freshmen qualify for free or reduced-price lunches -- could not afford the tuition necessary to keep a top-notch high school in operation.
Father Foley comes home
Enter the Rev. John Foley, SJ. After 34 years in Peru, working primarily in education with the poor, Foley was invited to return to his hometown of Chicago in 1995 to lead the team that was launching the new school.
“I think any reasonable person would have been intimidated,” said Foley, who served as the founding president of both Cristo Rey Jesuit and the Cristo Rey Network and is now chair emeritus and chief mission officer. “I think it helped that I was totally new to the scene.”
Knowing that he didn’t have all the answers, Foley and his team began networking, meeting with anybody who might be able to help with money, sweat equity or a good idea. One such meeting was with Rick Murray, a real estate investor who had helped the Jesuits with financial ideas in the past.
Murray, who became a consultant to the project, suggested that the school have its students work in paid internships to help defray costs.
“He didn’t know it at the time, nor did we, but it was the key to the whole project,” Foley said.
The work-study program became the financial engine that enabled the first Cristo Rey school to open its doors and later powered the expansion of the program nationwide.
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School was a proving ground for the work-study approach. Today, four students share a single internship, with each student working about five days a month. Together, the four students generate about $25,000 annually to defray tuition.
Before they begin working, students attend a three-week “boot camp,” as Birdsell calls it. They learn about everything from dress codes and Microsoft Office to how to use an elevator and a revolving door. Once the internships begin, the students typically meet at the school and ride a van to their workplaces to ensure that they are on time.
Separately, the internship and Cristo Rey’s academics are demanding. Together, they can be grueling, especially for 14-year-old freshmen, many of whom enter Cristo Rey schools two or three grade levels behind, Birdsell said. As the students are being introduced to the business world, they are also being exposed for the first time to a challenging curriculum and high faculty expectations.
“I’ll see a kid who’s tired, and he’ll say, ‘I’ve been in meetings all day,’” Birdsell said. “Add to that, the academics are rigorous: two to three hours of homework a night. If you’ve never done homework before, that’s a shock.”