Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Helping low-income kids help themselves at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis

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Cristo Rey is a different sort of private school, getting students into the work world and motivated to succeed.

One of the first things that 10th-grader Maguie Najera tells you is that she will be the first person in her family to graduate from high school.

She has more than two and a half years to go until then, but there's no doubt in her eyes when says it.

"I've really learned how to be independent and set goals for myself," she said. "Teachers push me a lot, and they're amazed at what I want to do. I want to study business law and be a lawyer."

Najera is a sophomore at Cristo Rey, a Jesuit high school on Lake Street in Minneapolis. The Minneapolis campus is part of a network of Cristo Rey private schools across the country.

But it's not your average private school. It's targeted toward poor children.

The schools use a unique formula of academics and work to get dedicated children from low-income families through school. One day a week, the students work at businesses across the Twin Cities, and their wages go to the school, which makes up for 70 percent of the cost of their education.

Twin Cities businesses such as the Dorsey and Whitney law firm, General Mills, Thomson Reuters and UnitedHealth Group all hire students.

"We've learned that it's not for everybody," said Stephen Schulz, who directs the school's work program. "We've found that for the students who come and really want to work hard, it's a great opportunity."

Minneapolis' Cristo Rey is only in its third year, and since it adds a grade every year it is open, its oldest students are only now juniors and starting to enter the college search process.

But the school's counterparts nationwide -- which serve almost 6,000 students -- report that 96 percent of their graduates are accepted to a two- or four-year college or university.

The average family that sends a student to Cristo Rey in south Minneapolis makes about $29,500 a year. Graduation rates for students from that demographic are much, much lower in most of the state.

Najera, who lives in Bloomington, spent her first year at Cristo Rey working at Best Buy's corporate headquarters. This year, she's a teller at M&I Bank on Lake Street, which is right next to the school.

She's learned financial literacy skills and passed them on to family, she said. The school also has taught her survival skills for a business environment, such as how to shake hands and introduce herself.

"It's a lot of responsibility here," she said.

Felicia Ravelomanantsoa, the branch manager at the bank, said that the bank is participating in the program this year as a way to invest in the community. The school's proximity helps, too.

"We're going to be able to build a pool of talent," said Ravelomanantsoa. The bank has four students from the school working there, equal to one full-time employee for the company. Each student works one day a week, with students rotating who works on Friday. The school's academic schedule, which runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, is set up to accommodate it. It's going "wonderfully" well, Ravelomanantsoa said, adding that the students are "just like sponges."

For the nine-month school year, a business pays the school $27,000 for a team of four students. That covers 70 percent of those students' education at Cristo Rey. Families pay the remaining $2,400 for the year, but those that can't afford it receive help.

Schulz said that for many students, the work experience is eye opening.

He cited a student he knew who started her time at Cristo Rey wanting to be a seamstress. Now, he said, she wants to be an immigration attorney.

"The students learn that there is a big wide world out there, and they want to be a part of that," he said.

Najera said that the school brought in a lawyer to talk to students about legal careers. Najera was intrigued, and walked up to the lawyer after the presentation to tell her that she, too, was interested in the profession.

The lawyer invited her to her downtown office for a quick tour, and after school one day, Najera went.

The firm, Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi, also employs Cristo Rey students. Najera said it was "so different" from anything she'd seen before.

Now she's determined to get there.

"As time has gone by, I've decided, I have to do something with my life," she said. Star Tribune

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