Saturday, September 1, 2007

Cristo Rey High School: A new school, a new start

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A Jesuit high school opens in south Minneapolis to help low-income, minority students gain an edge in life.

Dyleydy Valdivie attended three junior high schools in three years. But now that she's in high school, the aspiring child psychologist is counting on spending the next four years in one place: a new Jesuit high school in Minneapolis that will require her to take rigorous classes, dress up, and work one day per week.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School starts classes this week in the Phillips neighborhood, with a student body of economically disadvantaged teens. The private school is one of 19 in the national Cristo Rey Network, which touts tough standards and high graduation rates as proof of its success.

"I wanted to come here, because when I grow up it's going to give me a better job and better everything," said Valdivie, 14, whose passion is working with children and the deaf.

One recent morning, the school's 99 ninth-graders piled into the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center's pumpkin- and-lime-green second floor, its layout more like an office building than a school.

Valdivie and others were learning skills for work: punctuality, drug tests, how to fill out paperwork. One teacher taught the art of conversation to students who had been instructed to dress in "business casual" attire.

One student was asked to introduce himself in a loud, crisp voice. Again. And again.

Downstairs, tables with folded napkins and sparkling silverware were set up for a lesson on dining etiquette.

All of this took place before Tuesday's official start of school. To prepare them for work and academic expectations, students had to attend three weeks of orientation.

"I got interested because it was safe here to learn and no one will judge you," said Jose Montes-Osorio, 14, an aspiring computer technician who lives six blocks from the school.

Kristine Melloy, a professor at the University of St. Thomas who is taking a leave of absence to serve as Christo Rey's first principal, said most of the students are two or three years behind academically.

"They're not the run-of-the-mill students," said the Rev. John Foley, president of the Cristo Rey Network, headquartered in Chicago. "They're kids who are motivated. They're kids who want something more. They're not necessarily well-prepared. We told them, 'If you do your best, we'll take care of the rest.'"

Corporate funding comes from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, venture capitalist B.J. Cassin and area businesses, which will employ students.

Like many in the network, the Minneapolis school sits in a poor neighborhood. The spacious new building on 4th Avenue S. near E. Lake St. also houses Urban Ventures, a faith-based community organization.

Light pours through floor-to-ceiling windows. A portrait of Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is scheduled to be in Minneapolis for next month's building dedication, hangs in the main hall.

Religious services are optional

Religious studies are in the curriculum, but daily services will be optional, said the Rev. David Haschka, the school's president. [What is the nature of "daily services?"]

"We're not going to downplay the Christianity, but we're not going to shove it down anyone's throat," said the Rev. Bill Johnson, Cristo Rey's admissions director. [Interesting terminology, Father Bill! How 'bout Catholicism? Are you going to mention Catholicism? Was "shoving religion down throats" what you were taught in the seminary? No wonder the Jesuits are hurting for novices these days.]

The inaugural class includes Muslim Somalis, Hmong students from shamanistic backgrounds and students from Baptist and other Protestant families, Johnson said.

Sixty percent of the student body is Hispanic, 35 percent black and 5 percent from other racial backgrounds. The school draws largely from the Phillips neighborhood, but it also has enrolled students from St. Paul and Richfield.

The school day starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. with academic-oriented extracurricular activities until 6:30 p.m. Athletics aren't part of the program, although Haschka said that could change as the school adds a new grade level each year. There's no band or orchestra, either.

Longer school year

The school year is longer than average, running until June 18 with only a week off at Christmas and a two-day Easter break.

Cristo Rey Network officials said all that work yields high graduation rates. In 2006, their schools had a graduation rate of more than 90 percent, according to the network's website.

That compares with a 64 percent graduation rate for St. Paul high schools that year; 60.7 percent for Minneapolis (including several alternative schools); and 92.3 percent for the state's largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin.

Cristo Rey officials and outside experts agreed that the schools' success is partly due to an application process and rigorous demands that attract willing students and families.

"A kid has to want to come to this school," Haschka said.

Last year, the average family income for the 2,882 students attending Cristo Rey-affiliated schools was $33,051. That means a substantial number of lower-middle-class families are in the mix, as are families living below the poverty level, which is $20,650 for a family of four.

"What that does is get relatively stable families," said Harry Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University.

While lacking an independent study of the schools, Levin said he trusts Cristo Rey's numbers and approach because it's forthcoming with information about its schools.

The school will seek formal accreditation as soon as it is eligible, after several years of operating, Haschka said. The current class of 99 came from about 150 applicants. Prospective students sent in applications, letters of recommendation and transcripts. They were interviewed by an admissions committee; their parents were interviewed separately.

Families are expected to contribute about $200 per month toward a total "cost of education" of about $11,000 to $12,000 a year, Haschka said. School officials shy away from the word "tuition."

The rest comes from what students earn at their jobs, which is paid directly from the sponsoring businesses to Cristo Rey. Dorsey and Whitney, Allina Hospitals and Clinics, Best Buy and Catholic Charities are among the partners who will employ Cristo Rey students.

'Never underestimate them'

In Cleveland, when students from Cristo Rey's St. Martin de Porres High School first came to Huntington National Bank seeking work, executive assistant Daphne Washington didn't know what to do with them. But once she began treating them like adult employees, giving them computer access and greater responsibilities, "it was a beautiful thing," she said. "Never underestimate them."

Allina, headquartered near the Minneapolis school, got involved to help create a pipeline of qualified health care workers.

"They're critical to the revitalization of the neighborhood," said Dick Pettingill, Allina's CEO. "We have to make a long-term commitment to this community. Over the course of time, you'll see the results of that."

For Matt Dyson, with Best Buy's Geek Squad affiliate, "The goal with partnering with Cristo Rey is that we can inspire and teach a new generation to embrace new ideas. Our world needs some point people to lead the charge." StarTribune


Cristo Rey High School Baltimore, MD 2007
Holy Family High School Birmingham, AL 2007
North Cambridge CatholicHigh School Cambridge, MA 2004
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School Chicago, IL 1996
St Martin de Porres High School Cleveland, OH 2004
Arrupe Jesuit High School Denver, CO 2003
Providence Cristo Rey High School Indianapolis, IN 2007
Cristo Rey K.C. High School Kansas City, MO 2006
Notre Dame High School Lawrence, MA 2004
Verbum Dei High School Los Angeles, CA 2002
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School Minneapolis, MN 2007
Christ the King Preparatory School Newark, NJ 2007
Cristo Rey New York High School New York City, NY 2004
St Peter Claver High School Omaha, NE 2007
De La Salle North High School Portland, OR 2001
Cristo Rey High School Sacramento, CA 2001
San Miguel High School Tucson, AZ 2001
Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School (WDC) Takoma Park, MD 2007
St Martin de Porres High School Waukegan, IL 2004

Brooklyn 2008
Detroit 2008
West Side Chicago 2008


Feasibility Studies


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