by Jay Mathews
Twelve years ago, I stumbled across a story that seemed too good to be true. A Catholic high school in Chicago ensured its financial survival by having students help pay their tuition by working one day a week in clerical jobs at downtown offices.
This was a new idea in U.S. secondary education. New ideas are not necessarily a good thing, because they often fail. But the creator of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School was an educational missionary named John P. Foley who had spent much of his life helping poor people in Latin America. I was not going to dump on an idea from a man like that without seeing how it worked out.
Now I know. The Cristo Rey network has grown to 25 schools in 17 states, including a campus in Takoma Park, where more than half the students are from Prince George’s County and more than a third are from the District. It is blossoming in a way no other school, public or private, has done in this region.
Foley started the original school in 1996 in the Pilsen/Little Village section of southwest Chicago, a heavily Hispanic area. To some, it seemed to be a foolish venture. Catholic schools were dying in the nation’s urban neighborhoods. There was no way to pay for them.
But Richard Murray, a management consultant Foley knew, had an inspiration. What if Foley divided the student body into teams of four and assigned each team to an office job in the city? Each student would work one day a week. Their combined salaries could guarantee the school’s future.
More than 90 percent of the students at the original Cristo Rey school were from low-income families. Few had been subjected to the pressures of big-city offices. But they received proper training for their clerical assignments. As the experiment proceeded, they realized the writing, reading and math skills they were learning in school were relevant to their new jobs — and their work experience would help them find jobs to pay their way through college.
Foley urged other cities to adopt the unorthodox Cristo Rey approach. When he took some of his Chicago students to Los Angeles, a skeptical California teenager asked, “Don’t you think it’s nuts that you are doing all this work and don’t see any money out of it?”
One of the Chicago students answered: “Maybe I don’t see any money, but I get an education.”
A network of new schools began to grow, including Takoma Park’s Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, which opened in 2007 as the first Archdiocese of Washington high school in more than 55 years. Today, it has 325 students who “work one full day per week at law firms, banks, hospitals, universities and other professional corporate partners and are in the classroom the other four days,” spokeswoman Alicia Bondanella said.
More than 100 companies and organizations — including Ernst & Young, Georgetown University Hospital and Miller & Long Concrete Construction — employ Don Bosco students. Each student makes $7,500 a year, which is applied to the school’s $13,500 tuition. The remainder of the cost is covered by fundraising and the student’s family.
Bondanella said that 93 percent of students received outstanding or good ratings in their mid-year evaluations at their workplaces. Their attendance rate at work was 99 percent. Every one of the school’s 2011 and 2012 graduates were accepted into two- or four-year colleges. Eighty-two percent of the 2011 graduates, the first at Don Bosco to complete the four-year program, enrolled for a second year of college, twice the rate for students of similar backgrounds.
Hopefully the network will grow and perhaps embrace a bigger challenge: How about a college designed just for low-income students in the Cristo Rey way, paying the bills while establishing an unbreakable connection between what they are learning in class and what they are doing at work?