Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Cristo Rey Network: They help low-income kids get to college

Currently under construction in South Minneapolis at Lake Street and 4th Avenue S, is one of the latest in a chain of Catholic High Schools that have recently been built around the country. These schools, managed by the Cristo Rey (Christ the King) Network, cater to low income students who need some form of intervention in order that they may enter and complete their college education and move on to a productive life.

This will be the first major appearance by Jesuits in Minnesota since the time of Archbishop John Ireland. National and Minnesota corporations will be their partners in this enterprise. Classes for the school's first 9th graders will begin next Fall. This article appeared in Newsweek a few weeks ago.

The best ideas are often bred in desperation. A decade ago, Father John Foley and his Jesuit colleagues were in the midst of creating a new college-prep high school for students from Chicago's Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, a low-income area largely populated by Mexican immigrants. Even finishing high school was a lofty goal for many of these youngsters; in the inner city, a 50 percent dropout rate is not unusual. Coming up with a curriculum that would turn likely dropouts into college grads was a major challenge, but figuring out how to pay for the school seemed an even bigger obstacle. Clearly, the parents could not afford much tuition. The church couldn't sustain it, either. The worthy project was in danger of failure before a single student had enrolled. So Foley turned to a management consultant he describes as "original in his thinking." Two weeks later, the consultant, Richard Murray, returned with the suggestion that the students themselves could pay for their education by working at local companies. "It was a brilliant idea," Foley says. "That was the birth of this whole thing."

In 2007, "this whole thing"—now called the Cristo Rey Network after the first school—is set to add seven new schools to 12 already running in poor urban neighborhoods around the country. (More are planned for 2008.) The schools have attracted the attention of major philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which this year announced a $6 million grant to the network on top of an earlier $9.9 million investment. Thanks largely to the work-study program and a rigorous curriculum, Cristo Rey has succeeded where so many others fail: the four-year dropout rate for the network's graduation class this year was 6 percent, and 96 percent enrolled in a two- or four-year college this fall.

The model that succeeded so well in Chicago—no more than 550 motivated students, all from economically disadvantaged backgrounds—so far seems translatable to other cities, which is always a difficult goal in educational innovation. Expectations are high: 99 percent of the class of 2006 was accepted to college. Students work one day a week for corporations doing entry-level jobs. Foley believes the work requirement has a major impact on students far beyond what the money does for the schools' bottom lines. "I like to say that it has opened horizons for them," he says.

When the first students went off to their jobs in the fall of 1996, Foley was so anxious that he says "I wanted to hide under the desk." But then he began to hear from employers—most of them in major corporations in Chicago's business district—thanking him for the hardworking students, and from students themselves, many of whom were venturing out of their neighborhoods for the first time. "Imagine them going to the Sears Tower, to the 60th floor, and finding they have a desk there," he says. "On Sundays, they would take their parents down to the city and just look in on the buildings from the outside."

The Chicago Cristo Rey school now sends students to 106 corporations. They spend one day a week downtown for every four days in the classroom. Employers pay the school $27,000 for each job—70 percent of tuition costs. Tuition is $2,650, but 60 percent of families get some aid. This cost includes the students' schoolbus transportation from Cristo Rey at 8 a.m. and from downtown Chicago at 4:45 p.m. "We do all the recruiting, all the HR, we take out all the taxes," says Peter Beale-DelVecchio, director of development. Some students also choose to work in the summer. If they do, they get to keep their salaries. Employers agree not to hire students whose GPA falls below 2.0. To get students ready for work, Cristo Rey requires freshmen to undergo a three-week summer training program where students learn the basics of business behavior—how to shake hands, maintain eye contact, answer the phone—as well as tasks like filing. Parents, most of whom speak little English, are bullish on the program. "They help the students to succeed," says Irma Vargas, whose daughter, Lillian, is a freshman. "She feels important."

In Chicago, 82 percent of alumni have graduated from or are currently attending college. One of those graduates (class of 2004) is Angelica Barron, 21, now a sophomore at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Earlier this month, she returned to the school to watch her brother, Oscar Solis, 18, perform in a play for Our Lady of Guadalupe Day. "I don't think I would have gone to college if it hadn't been for this school," she says. In her internship at a law firm, she worked in the library, human resources, information services and accounting. She still remembers how Cristo Rey brought in many schools for a college fair, which helped her classmates see "the opportunities that are out there waiting for us." Her goal is to be a teacher—and pass that gift on to the next generation. Newsweek

Coincidentally, the Insight community newspaper in Minneapolis has an article on Cristo Rey this week.

Christo Rey Jesuit High School: a new attitude about learning

Increasingly, it is clear that inner-city parents desperately need alternatives to public school in general, and the Minneapolis Public School system in specific.

One hopes real hard that interim superintendent Dr. Bill Green, overseeing the district's business functions and academic achievements, will turn things around in the foreseeable future. Provided, of course, they have they good sense to give him the job. In the meantime, Minneapolis moms and dads must look at how the mess Green inherited presently impacts - more the point, impairs - student well being. How it continues to shortchange their children. And what viable alternatives exist.

The warehousing that has taken place at a stepped-up rate in Minneapolis over the past few years mirrors the nation's historic disregard for public school kids. One recourse that presents itself these days is an often-envied solution that for ages was way out of financial reach -- private school. It's not pervasive, but it is there: institutions whose funders will foot the bill if your child can meet academic requirements. They're not popping up on every corner and you can find yourself faced with the prospect of a waiting list. However, it is a lot better than nothing. And looks very good when you consider that effective public schools are the exception much more than they are the rule.

Accordingly, presented for your consideration: Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a national, community-minded operation that opens its doors locally for the 2007-08 academic year (they're building a high school from the ground up in the Phillips Neighborhood). It's a place that you may well find agreeable to your wallet. In fact, the admissions director, Father Bill Johnson, flatly states, "If you can afford to send your child to our school, it's not the school for you." That's the level of their commitment to equal economic opportunity.

As the name indicates, it's a faith-based institution. If you're going to let the fact that a grounding in Christianity comes along with giving students smaller classes and better attention bother you, then this is not an option for you. Anybody else, let me share with you an experience I had when recruiters came to a particular K-8 school, we'll call it Faith Academy, looking for high school prospects. The rep for Minneapolis Public Schools - even though MPS offers studies that prepare students for college - spoke to parents and students about nothing except what amounts to trade school tracking: cosmetology, auto repair, and those kinds of things. There is, of course, nothing wrong with working in a beauty shop or a garage. There's also nothing wrong (and a whole lot right) with offering studies that prepare kids for entry into a university - something the MPS rep totally excluded from her recruiting spiel. Which, appalling as that is, actually comes as not much of a surprise - the city's public school system did not start failing disenfranchised children yesterday. Or by accident.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School offers, in addition to its educational curriculum, an opportunity that might have some parents wishing they could attend. It conducts a program which has jobs for its students at Allina and other corporations (banks, law firms, brokerage houses, and insurance companies) so that they can earn up to 75% of the cost of their college prep education. There's also a component of the program that lets the students take some of that money home. This Corporate Internship Program for the students is a unique offering among even the finest - and most expensive - private schools.

Long story short, Minneapolis Public Schools - with the advent of private alternatives - is no longer the only shop in town. And, if Cristo Rey Jesuit High School doesn't quite sound like your cup of tea, it's good to at least know it's there and, moreover, that it is not the only community resource. If it does sound like something you're interested in or if you just want to do some tire-kicking, you can call (612) 276-0140 and ask about stopping by their offices at East Lake St. and 10th Ave. What do have to lose? And what does your child have to gain? Insight

A commenter inquired as to "how Catholic is this school?" Well, we won't know for sure until it opens. I have heard that all students will have to take a religion class that will study "all" religions. What Catholic students will study needs some research. I don't believe that very many Catholic schools have daily Mass any more.

It will also be interesting to see how many Jesuits will be teaching/administering at Minneapolis' Cristo Rey, and also how many of them will be wearing the Roman Collar and require that they be addressed as "Father."

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