Cristo Rey schools change lives

In Boston, tucked away among the tightly bunched houses and mom and pop stores in the Savin Hill neighborhood of this historic city is an old, red-brick schoolhouse where students who once would fall in the cracks between academic achievement and economic opportunity are seizing their chance to succeed.

Cristo Rey High School Boston is part of a network of 26 high schools from Portland, Oregon, to Brooklyn, New York, that educate mostly minority students living in poverty by having them pay their way through internships with prominent companies where some find post-college careers.

“We tell them, ‘There are no shortcuts to success. You are smart, and we will teach you to learn and to think. But you have to put in the time,’” said Jeffrey Thielman, one of the founders of the Cristo Rey network of schools and now president of the Boston school. “This has grown from a Jesuit concept to educate kids. We are Catholic college prep schools that use an innovative work-study program to educate students and prepare them for college ... exclusively serving low-income students.”

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Students study together at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, Mass. Notre Dame Cristo Rey students have a college acceptance rate of 100 percent. Courtesy photo

The first Cristo Rey high school opened in southwest Chicago in 1997. This was in response from Jesuits to students from the area, predominantly Mexican-American, dropping out of school and the plea from parents to give their children a chance to become well-educated and work in a profession. Father John Foley was there from day one and wondered why no one was educating the poor children of the neighborhood.

Today, Father Foley is struck by the education boomlet his Catholic high schools are experiencing in contrast to the downward trend in diocesan high schools.

“There is more at work than meets the eye; it is the Lord’s work,” said Father Foley, the first president of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago and now chairman emeritus of the network’s board of directors. “It is out of control; we can’t keep up. We have people calling all the time asking us to open a Cristo Rey school in their community. It is a gift from God, and it keeps going and going.”

Business model

The high schools function as selective prep schools looking for students with “grit,” according to Thielman, who oversaw the start-up of 24 Cristo Rey high schools. The schools also function as job-placement agencies. Four students are on a rotation at a private company to create the equivalent of a single full-time employee, taking each student out of the classroom five days a month. The companies pay the school’s in-house placement service for the students’ work hours. In Boston, that amounts to 60 percent of the high school’s revenue — $2.55 million. The balance of the revenue comes from fundraising efforts.

The students work in the health care industry, law firms, insurance companies and other businesses where they handle office work, reception areas and online customer service — really the nuts and bolts of American business, where showing up to work on time, following directions from supervisors, dressing appropriately and conducting oneself in a professional manner is expected.

“The average family income for our students is $24,000 a year,” Thielman said. “We want families to get accustomed to paying, so they receive a bill of $1,100 a year that they have to pay.”

Naomi Pinales, a 15-year-old junior, heard about Cristo Rey two years ago when she was a freshman at South Boston High School and struggling as one of the few Hispanic students in the majority black school population. The school gave her hope, and she has not been disappointed.

“I heard Cristo Rey was a good school with a lot of Hispanic people, and I was experiencing a lot of discrimination because I am not black and they made of fun of the way I talked, my accent,” Pinales said. “I used to skip school when it was my turn to talk in front of the class. At first it was tough coming here; they give us a lot of work, and that is good because they are getting us ready for college. I hope to study communications and work on television as a reporter or an anchor.”

Yuliza Valentin, 16, also a junior, followed her big brother to Cristo Rey. Her mother hoped to send her two other children to one of two Catholic high schools nearby, but when she lost her job, she turned again to Cristo Rey.

“I’m the type of person who easily adapts to places,” said Valentin, a member of the softball and volleyball teams at school and on the prom committee. “If you want to come here, be ready to work hard. This is not a school for lazy people. They will push you here because they want you to be successful, make the most of your time here.”

‘Gritty in school’

After teaching math at Cristo Rey for 11 years, Jill Crowley was promoted to principal for academics. She is proud that Cristo Rey High School Boston’s students have a 100 percent acceptance rate to college. Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts, boasts the same figure. Crowley said the school is looking for a certain kind of student.

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Students at Cristo Rey Jesuit College Prepatory High School in Houston pray together. The school opened in 2009. Courtesy photo

“We have to see a glimmer in them, and that glimmer is different for each student,” she said. “We want to help them get gritty in school and in the workplace.”

It takes students with “the right stuff” to make the Cristo Rey system work, she said.

“If we want to close the achievement gap, we want our kids to be ready so they can have the options to place them in position to have the opportunities to succeed,” Crowley said.

Besides academics and workplace experience, “we do a lot of work through our counseling department,” she added. “All the students leaving our school have an action plan and follow-up from us, as well.”

Nationwide, 90 percent of Cristo Rey graduates enroll in college, 250 of whom were accepted at the top 100 national universities and colleges. Eighty-nine percent of Cristo Rey alums enrolled at a college partner institution have graduated or are on track to graduate. Cristo Rey high schools send their students to 1,800 corporate work study programs and “36 religious sponsors and endorsers assure that each school is Catholic in identity and mission,” according to the network’s 2013 annual report.

Signs of success

At St. Martin de Porres High School in Cleveland, the impact of the school on the near-east side of downtown where lower income families reside “has been tremendous,” said Caitlin McDermott, director of the annual fund and special events. A new building is planned in the neighborhood to house the school, which is now located in a former elementary school.

McDermott said the proof of the impact in the majority black neighborhood is that 80 percent of its alumni go directly into college and 30 percent are graduating on time. “Which is pretty good when the national average is 11 percent,” she said.

The enrollment is 85 percent black with Caucasian, mixed race and Hispanic students comprising the rest of the student population, she said.

The study body at De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland, Oregon, is 43 percent African American, 35 percent Latino, 15 percent multi-racial and about 7 percent Caucasian, said school president Matt Powell. He also noted his graduates — 45 percent of whom graduate from college in five years, far above the national rate — are making an impact in their communities.

“Some are coming back to Portland to work in businesses there, some at the same businesses where they were work-study during high school,” Powell said. “We have one graduate who is in admissions in our Philadelphia school and another graduate working in our New York City school.

“The goal is to change their destiny and to end the cycle of poverty in their community,” he said. “This year we have one girl at De La Salle who has been accepted by three Ivy League schools and another graduate accepted at Columbia. They are making their marks.”

Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Rhode Island.