The School That Works

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Each weekday morning, about 100 students at Cristo Rey, a Jesuit high school in Chicago, troop onto buses wearing shirts and ties and looking like slightly younger versions of all the adults going to work. After getting dropped off downtown, they walk to their jobs at law firms, insurance companies and banks.

Started six years ago in Pilsen, an extremely poor Mexican community on Chicago’s Near West Side, Cristo Rey combines some of the typical features of a parochial education–rigorous classes and an emphasis on discipline and college attendance–with an unusual work-study requirement called the “corporate internship program.”

But these are no ordinary internships. Instead of the loose hours and nonexistent pay that characterize traditional efforts to link work and school, students hold down real full-time jobs, with the hours split between four students. Cristo Rey kids fax, file, deliver, copy and answer phones just like any other entry-level worker for five full days a month, while at the same time completing a demanding academic program–and paying their own tuition through their jobs.

For decades, parochial schools have provided an escape hatch for ambitious low-income students who might otherwise have to attend struggling neighborhood schools. But the average parochial high school tuition–$4,000-plus in New York–remains insurmountable for many families. At Cristo Rey, students’ wages cover about 75 percent of the cost of running the school, as opposed to the typical parochial school, where tuition covers about two-thirds of the costs. Thanks to the internships, students get valuable work experience, employers get able young workers, and families get a drastically reduced tuition of $2,200–roughly half the cost of most other Catholic high schools in the area.

To its proponents, the Cristo Rey model is a sustainable way of expanding access to quality education, with much larger numbers of poor students gaining access to parochial education than would be available through scholarships at existing schools. “Even with all the scholarship money in the world, you couldn’t give access to all these kids,” says Jeff Thielman of the Cassin Foundation, a Cristo Rey funder.

Among skeptics, reservations are not so much ideological as practical. “It is sort of sad that children have to do this to get a good education,” says Noreen Connell, executive director of New York’s Educational Priorities Panel, a budget watchdog group. “It sounds really onerous,” echoes Brad Hoylman, communications director of the New York City Partnership, a municipal business group that has sponsored public-private education collaborations. “How do they find time to work?”

At first, Cristo Rey was a Chicago-only phenomenon. But then San Francisco venture capitalist B.J. Cassin started a foundation to help find additional locations and start-up funds for new Cristo Rey schools. Since then, three more Cristo Rey schools have been started–one in Portland, Oregon, one in Los Angeles, and one in Austin, Texas–with another opening up next fall in Denver. Officials in Boston, New Brunswick, and Tucson are all either considering or planning on opening a Cristo Rey school in the near future. The idea has been profiled in BusinessWeek and the Los Angeles Times as well as on public television. Visitors have flocked to the Chicago school to see how it works.

Now, if all goes as planned, the Cristo Rey model is coming to the Bronx. After conducting a nine-month feasibility study, chief proponent and founding president William Ford has secured a three-year lease for the top floor of the Immaculate Conception Parish Elementary School on East 151st Street in Mott Haven. Ford already has over $1 million in funding and says he’s on track to admit the first class of 100 freshmen to Cristo Rey High School New York in August.

There’s just one snag: Thus far, Cristo Rey has not yet received formal approval from the Catholic Archdiocese to open a new school. At the office of the Archdiocese, spokesperson Nora Murphy would make little comment on Cristo Rey, saying that there are “amicable” conversations underway and that the Archdiocese is awaiting additional documentation from the state Board of Regents before a decision is made.

But the possibility of a new Catholic high school in the South Bronx–the first in decades–has raised hackles among existing Catholic schools in the neighborhood. They see Cristo Rey as competing with them, both in fundraising and for the brightest, most motivated students, and many of them aren’t happy about it. Without their cooperation, it’s conceivable that Cristo Rey might not be approved.

Murphy says the main concern is how well the new school will complement those already in place. “We don’t want a new school to come in that is not blended into the mix,” she says.

Others are more blunt, though they don’t want their names used in print. “We don’t support them,” says the principal at another nearby Catholic high school. “What’s needed here is a school for students who need a lot of remedial help. That’s not the target they have.”

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Started six years ago with just 80 students taking classes in a defunct elementary school building, the Chicago school has been a remarkable success, both academically and financially. Because 99 percent of students come from Mexican-American families, many of them recent immigrants, Cristo Rey has a dual-language Spanish-English curriculum.

There are no honors courses or academic tracks. But even though the school requires no standardized admissions test and only accepts students who are not applying to other Catholic schools, enrollment, graduation and college attendance rates have been extraordinarily high. Enrollment has grown to more than 450 students, half of whom are given scholarships that further reduce the cost of attending the school. In a neighborhood where public schools have a 55 to 60 percent graduation rate, over 90 percent of Cristo Rey students graduate high school, and over 85 percent of them are in college.

Thanks to the model’s appeal, as well as effective fundraising, a new school building houses the students, and a library and gymnasium are already under construction next door. More than 110 Chicago businesses, including CIGNA and most of the top law firms in town, have hired Cristo Rey students this year. “Everybody knows about Cristo Rey,” says freshman Nancy Maldonado, who lives in the neighborhood and works at a downtown law firm.

For the Jesuits, who have long been known as educators, Cristo Rey represents a return to their core mission of serving the poor. The Jesuits already run nearly 50 high schools nationwide, but many of these schools have become elite institutions that are extremely competitive to get into and charge $8,000 to $10,000 a year in tuition. In some cities, Jesuits have also opened a handful of “nativity” schools, small, personalized middle schools specifically for poor kids, but these schools are expensive to run.

The work program at Cristo Rey was actually the brainchild of a group of Jesuits and an outside consultant hired to come up with a way to open an inexpensive high school that, unlike most parochial schools, wouldn’t need ongoing financial support from outside. The Chicago school is 95 percent self-sufficient in covering its operational budget, which is one of the program’s main goals.

There were unexpected benefits to the work requirement as well. Cristo Rey educators now say that they would continue the work-study format even if they didn’t need it for funding. “The experiences that our students were having in the corporate sector were opening up more doors than anyone could name,” says founding principal Sister Judy Murphy, “mainly in students’ minds.”

A three-week orientation program helps prepare new students–some of whom have never even gone downtown–to dress appropriately, make eye contact, shake hands firmly and operate office equipment. They type at least 40 words a minute. Showing up for work is mandatory, and the school claims a 98 percent work attendance rate.

On the first day of school six years ago, sophomore Juan Marquez came back from his work-study job at a downtown insurance company headquarters bursting with excitement about where he’d been and how easily he’d been accepted into this new world. “They gave me the security code!” he told the principal. “I can go anywhere in that building.”

For low-income immigrant students like Marquez, whose neighborhood experience offers little exposure to adults from other backgrounds, this work experience may be as valuable as anything he can learn in a classroom. “You get to see lawyers and other people at work,” says freshman Eduardo Ramirez, who works at a big law firm downtown. “Maybe you want to be like them.”

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By and large, the students seem to like their jobs and are proud of their school. “You get more responsibility downtown,” explains Angel Velasquez, a clean-cut sophomore who works at Northern Trust Bank.

Cristo Rey is not easy, though. Because roughly a quarter of the student body is at work–and not in class–each day, school officials had to develop a slightly longer school day and year to ensure that academics aren’t given short shrift. To help keep costs down, many teachers work heavy loads. Because of the schedule, students sometimes miss out on sports and other school events because of work. Work comes first.

The hours, not to speak of rushed anonymity of downtown office life, can be hard, too, say students. “People are so rude downtown,” says sophomore Tatiana Martinez. “Some white people think Latinos are lazy.”

Convincing employers to take on high school students as real employees was also a struggle, especially at first, says Sister Murphy. “They didn’t quite believe that adolescents could be asked to do real work,” she recalls.

And just like in the Bronx, the Chicago school initially faced serious opposition from other local Catholic schools. Even though it had close ties to the neighborhood, was led by top Jesuit officials with strong connections to the Archdiocese, and was championed by Chicago’s late, beloved Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Cristo Rey was controversial at first. It still is: Just last spring, plans for a second Cristo Rey on the South Side were put on hold, in part because of opposition from existing Catholic schools nearby.

Times have been hard for Catholic schools. In Chicago and around the country, urban Catholic high schools have been closing regularly over the past decade, as interest and enrollment have dried up and Catholic families have moved out of cities. Cristo Rey was the first new Catholic high school to open in Chicago in 30 years. To ease other schools’ fears of losing enrollment to Cristo Rey, the school was initially forced to start with sophomores and juniors rather than accepting freshmen, and almost had to agree to take no one who had gone to a Catholic elementary school.

In the end, these fears proved groundless. The new school in Chicago has ended up having little or no negative effect on nearby Catholic schools. Nobody has closed because of Cristo Rey. Enrollment has actually gone up 50 percent at a nearby all-girls Catholic school, and Latino enrollment at a nearby elite Jesuit high school has also been on the rise.

One reason is that two out of three Cristo Rey students come out of public schools, not other Catholic schools. (For most Catholic high schools it is the other way around.) And Cristo Rey regularly diverts interested families who aren’t recent immigrants, or who can afford to pay regular tuition, to established Catholic schools.

As a result, Cristo Rey has won a fair amount of local support among Catholic educators. “I think it’s a great thing,” says Brother Michael Quirk, president of the De La Salle Institute, a nearby Catholic school. “There are so many kids underserved in Chicago that we need more alternatives.”

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Monsignor John Graham, principal of Cardinal Hayes, a boys school located in Mott Haven, is proud of his school’s efforts to keep tuition to just $4,250 per year. Two-thirds of the students at his school are Hispanic; most of the rest are African-American. Over 95 percent graduate, according to Graham, and 96 percent are accepted into college. “We have the lowest Catholic tuition in the metro area,” he says, in addition to giving financial assistance to 35 percent of all students. Like other Catholic educators in New York, Graham refuses to talk about Cristo Rey. “I don’t want to go there,” he says.

The poorest borough in the city, the Bronx also has the city’s highest number of public schools on the list of Schools Under Registration Review, the state’s index of failing public schools. While she laments the fact that students and their families have to go to such extreme measures just to get a decent education, Noreen Connell, for one, sees Cristo Rey as a worthwhile experiment. “You’re giving them work experience, which isn’t bad,” she says. “It’s something that the students and families have volunteered to do. It’s an effort to create smaller and better high schools.”

But Ford knows that he has yet to win everyone over. Leaders of other Catholic schools in the area are particularly worried. There are already 14 Catholic high schools serving the borough, including two nearby schools–Pius V for girls and Cardinal Hayes for boys. “Their schools are already up and running, and it’s hard to raise money and attract students,” says Ford, pointing out that the idea of a “shiny new school” is understandably threatening. “We’re meant to expand the pool, rather than cut into a finite pie of students. But to them it’s just so many words.”

One problem may be that the Bronx Cristo Rey is not as closely linked to the Jesuits and the archdiocesan community as its Chicago counterpart. Instead of being sponsored and run by Jesuits, the Bronx school will be more loosely affiliated with three different Catholic congregations. Ford, like many other Cristo Rey proponents nationally, is a layperson. The school’s advisory committee did not include anyone from the Archdiocese, and local Jesuits don’t necessarily see the idea of starting a new school like Cristo Rey as their own. “This didn’t come from us,” explains Sister Nora Cronin, the Jesuit official in charge of high schools in New York. “This came from Mr. Ford, who wanted to have the backing of the religious community.”

Cristo Rey needs archdiocesan approval if it is going to call itself a Catholic school and approach traditional Catholic funders. So far, the school has received $750,000 from Cassin and $250,000 from the Holy Sisters, and needs $2.5 million more to balance its budget within five years. Like the Chicago school, Cristo Rey New York plans on being self-sufficient within five years. “We’re not asking for a penny, a building, or a single person from the Archdiocese,” says Ford. Nonetheless, he’s worried the school won’t be approved as promptly as he would like. “There are some factions within the Archdiocese that are concerned,” he says, “and some openly hostile.”

Ford expects the Regents to give their approval by January, and he hopes the Archdiocese will follow shortly thereafter, despite his lack of formal credentials. In the meantime, he is going forward with the rest of his plans for next fall’s opening.

Rather than the private buses and vans used in Chicago, the Bronx Cristo Rey is going to rely on public transportation to get students to and from work each day. Minimizing the commute time to midtown and Wall Street workplaces is the main reason, but trains will also save the roughly $1,000 a day that the Chicago school’s buses cost. Ford is already enlisting an army of volunteers to accompany students each day.

Academically, the new school may not be based on a dual-language Spanish-English curriculum like the one in Chicago. While Mott Haven has a substantial Spanish-speaking population, many families have been there for longer than Chicago’s recent Mexican immigrants, and there are also significant numbers of African-American families. Chicago’s Quirk, whose De La Salle school has a similar demographic composition, says he doubts his African-American students would be interested in a Spanish-English program.

Ford, who carefully pronounces the new school’s name with a Spanish accent, says that personally he would like to have a Spanish-language program at the school. This would reflect the community culture, he says, and honor the memory of his aunt, a Roman Catholic nun and one of the four American churchwomen killed in El Salvador in 1980.

As in Chicago, undocumented students will not be accepted for now, due to employment and immigration considerations. But a dual-language program is especially important to Ford because he would like to be able to enroll undocumented immigrant students someday. “I see them as the community that is in greatest need,” he says. “It’s my community 100 years ago.”

Alexander Russo (AlexanderRusso@aol.com) is a Chicago-based education writer.