Wednesday, February 20, 2008

More than a Dream

Gifted Exchange is primarily about gifted education, but we also like to cover education reform in general. As such, I've been trying to invite authors of new education books to share their messages with Gifted Exchange readers. This week, I'm happy to introduce you to G.R. Kearney, author of the new More than a Dream: The Cristo Rey Story.

Several years ago, as a new college graduate, G. R. began volunteering at a new Catholic school in inner-city Chicago. The school, called Cristo Rey (Spanish for "Christ the King") pledged to provide a prep school quality education for children of limited means. Their tuition would be primarily covered through a work-study program, in which students worked in corporate offices doing entry level jobs 1-2 days a week. I've written about my visits to these schools on this blog before; while the schools do not view gifted education per se as part of their mission (as G.R. points out, the most brilliant low-income children already have scholarship options at some great private prep schools) , there are lessons for everyone from watching a school grow. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has identified the Cristo Rey network of schools as an idea that seems to be working, and has funded scaling it up to almost 20 locations across the country.

*LV: How did you come to work at the Chicago CR school?

G.R. Kearney: I had the great privilege of helping to found a volunteer program at Cristo Rey in 1999, just a few months after I graduated from college. Two of my classmates from Georgetown University and I spent two years at Cristo Rey teaching, coaching, and driving school buses.

*What was the biggest growing pain for the school? What did you learn about education by watching a school grow?

It’s hard to identify just one growing pain. Cristo Rey is unique in that it seeks to provide private, high quality, college prep education to students who couldn’t otherwise afford it—many of the school’s students live below the poverty line. Figuring out a way to make the school work economically was a huge hurdle that ultimately led to the school’s revolutionary Corporate Internship Program.

Educationally, I think the biggest growing pain for the school was developing a curriculum that was student-centered and responsive to the needs of the community, but also cost-effective. From the start, Cristo Rey’s founders knew that a cookie cutter curriculum simply wouldn’t work in a neighborhood where dropout rates often exceeded 50%. Unfortunately, many of the young people in the predominantly Latino neighborhood simply weren’t engaged in school. If Cristo Rey were to succeed, it would have to be different and would have to find a way to connect with and engage its students in the leaning process.

Cristo Rey’s original faculty and staff did incredible things from a curricular perspective. They were using block scheduling and encouraging teachers from different content areas to co-teach classes in an effort to help students understand the connections between subjects. The school also used a dual language curriculum that gave students a chance to study in both English and Spanish. The curriculum was truly cutting edge.

It was also expensive. Because teachers went to such great lengths to custom build the classes they taught, they spent less time in the classroom than teachers at any comparable school. This was a problem in a school that had to, by virtue of the population it served and its revenue model, operate on a lean budget. Balancing those two competing interests was a source of tension at the school for many years.

What did I learn? If students don’t want to be there and don’t have some desire to learn, then it’s tough to make a school work well. This desire takes makes forms. It can be a response to motivation from parents or peers. It can be internal. It can be a love for learning. Unfortunately, in low income communities, motivation from parents and peers is sometimes lacking. Schools that serve students who don’t necessarily desire an education need to prove to students that education is worth it before they can even begin to teach.

*We've been discussing on this blog that public schools in the era of NCLB are failing their brightest lower-income students "virtually as a matter of policy." What did CR schools do to challenge particularly bright kids?

Cristo Rey schools encourage those kids to go to other schools. Cristo Rey was founded for those students who didn’t have the academic background to get into the city’s elite high schools — private or public. Cristo Rey’s administrators still tell students that, if they can get into Whitney Young, Walter Payton, or St. Ignatius, they should go there.

Cristo Rey wasn’t founded to educate the best and brightest students, but rather to give those middle of the road students who might be at a higher risk of dropping out or failing to prepare adequately for post-secondary education with the best education possible.

Initially, there was no tracking at Cristo Rey. It’s my understanding, though, that there has been a realization that the school does attract students with very different aptitudes and skill levels and, as a result, the school has begun to experiment with tracking.

* How does working in an office environment change children's perceptions of the adult world?

Enormously. Tom Vander Ark, who used to run the education arm of the Gates Foundation and now runs the X Prize Foundation, has praised Cristo Rey schools for giving students “an opportunity to spend time with adults they can imagine becoming.”

Many of Cristo Rey’s freshman students have a somewhat narrow world view. For the most part they come from blue collar families and, in many cases, they spend very little time outside of the neighborhood. Their sense of the future and their potential is sometimes limited by what they’ve seen. They simply don’t know what is out there.

Going to work instead of going to class five schools days every month opens the students’ eyes to another part of the world. It’s not uncommon for a Cristo Rey student to graduate from high school having worked at a bank, a law firm, a consulting company, and an advertising agency. Talk about expanding horizons.

I think the experience of working to earn their own tuition also gives the Cristo Rey students a profound understanding of the sacrifices their parents make on a daily basis to provide for their families.

* If a parent isn't near a CR school (or the family wouldn't qualify) is there some way to recreate some of the adult mentoring that comes from the corporate work-study program?

Great question. I think any young person, regardless of their station in life, benefits from relationships with adults. Such relationships help students and young people to see that the world is much bigger, and often more exciting, than is sometimes apparent to them.

As you said, not every family qualifies for Cristo Rey schools—only low-income families are allowed to apply. To answer your question, though, yes, I think there are ways to replicate some of the mentoring that takes place between students and adults through the work program. Many communities have mentoring programs. If your readers’ communities don’t, maybe they can create such programs. Summer internships or after school jobs can also be a good way for students to interact with adults. You may also think about inviting adults from the community in to your child’s school to talk about what they do at work or how their educations have impacted their lives. It could be a regular series. I think, as the students get older, this becomes more and more valuable.


Laura Vanderkam said...

I apologize for the font changes in the main post for today. I am having some trouble with Blogger...

Anonymous said...

I was going to complain about the font changes—I found this article very hard to read—but I see you are already aware of the problem.

Could you also change the blog skin to one that has a higher contrast between text and background (like black-on-white)? The green-on-green is very hard for old eyes to read.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for fixing the skin---the black on white is MUCH more readable.