Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When School Works

From time to time, I like to share news about educational innovations with readers of this blog. One of the more interesting ones I've come across lately is the Cristo Rey network of schools.

Started in Chicago a few years ago, this network of college prep Catholic schools has a mission to serve the urban poor. Indeed, in most Cristo Rey schools, 80% of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. The majority are black or Hispanic. Students receive a rigorous education and are expected to pursue college afterwards. Across the network of a dozen Cristo Rey schools, more than 90% of graduates go on to 2- or 4-year colleges.

There's nothing too crazy about this; Catholic schools have long provided a quality education to inner city kids. But over the past few years a number of urban Catholic schools have closed. For various reasons, archdioceses have run low on funds, and with fewer nuns and priests willing to teach for cheap, Catholic schools have had to pay salaries to lay people that are closer to public school salaries. That means they have to find donors or raise tuition. Raising tuition is seldom an option when a big proportion of your student body lives close to the poverty line, and even middle class families worried about college costs may be loathe to absorb big cost increases. But fundraising is expensive and time-consuming too.

So how do you develop an urban Catholic education model that's sustainable? Enter Fr. John Foley, a Jesuit priest. A few years ago he wanted to start a high school in Chicago, and he asked a management consultant friend to brainstorm funding ideas. The one they hit upon? Have the kids "work off" their tuition by apprenticing with area businesses. Basically, for about $25,000 a year paid to the Cristo Rey school, a company gets a full time equivalent worker in return. This comes in the form of a four student team. Each student works one day a week for the company doing something clerical or entry-level (and 2 days a week one day a month). Students spend the first 3 weeks of their freshmen year in a career bootcamp learning to shake hands, answer the phone, use computers, etc. Then the school matches them with a job that tempts their interests.

Since one of the big problems with high school is how unconnected it feels to the real world, this model has been a big hit. Kids at the Chicago Cristo Rey school would show up at downtown skyscrapers and find desks waiting for them. How cool is that? They'd bring their parents to see the buildings on weekends. Many had never been to the Loop before. Businesses that employ Cristo Rey kids like having these young people around, and Cristo Rey schools have to do very little fundraising.

Not that they're not attracting funds. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given several million dollars to the Cristo Rey network to help open seven new schools this fall, including in Newark, NJ. The Foundation is interested in learning if the model can be replicated broadly. I'm not sure how much of the schools' success is related to their Catholic nature, and how much is related to their rigor and career focus, but anything that helps bright kids from tough backgrounds see a world beyond their neighborhoods is worth praising.


Anonymous said...

This seems like a wonderful program! It is important to teach our young men career skills and professional courtesy in addition to academic knowledge. I believe it will add to their confidence, which in turn, will add to their success.

Best wishes for the pending birth of your baby.

Anonymous said...

Around where I live, there is a school that runs this program. I had been interested in attending but changed my mine when I saw they didn't have many electives. However, I think the program is a great idea.