Big ideas like the new No Child Left Behind Act are important, but I prefer writing about little ideas that come from improvising educators in places I never heard of and change the way we look at schools.

Here is a good example: the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. It is located in one of Chicago's poorest and most crowded neighborhoods. Its unusual success raises an intriguing question--would the national debate over school vouchers sound different if the voucher money came not from taxpayers, but from the useful labor of the students themselves?

Cristo Rey is in the Pilsen/Little Village section of southwest Chicago. It has 440 students and plans to increase to 500 soon. Almost all of them are from Mexican immigrant families; 93 percent of them are poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies.

Their friends in the local public schools are, on average, doing terribly, with low graduation rates and low test scores. But the Cristo Rey students are going in an entirely different direction. More than 80 percent are going to college and their dropout rate is one percent, compared to 21 percent in neighborhood public schools.

Cristo Rey has a demanding curriculum, with a heavy emphasis on Spanish. This spring it is scheduled to give 250 Advanced Placement tests. Because it will graduate only 76 seniors, that puts it in the top half of 1 percent of all U.S. high schools in AP participation rates. It has recruited an excellent faculty and spends about $8,500 per student, yet tuition is only $2,200, and half of the students receive financial aid for that.

So where does the rest of the money come from? If Chicago had a school voucher program, like those in Cleveland and Milwaukee and Florida, that $6,300 per student might be paid by the city or state, from the tax dollars that would have supported those students if they attended public schools. Politicians have been pounding each over the head with the voucher issue for several years. Republicans say vouchers save the poor from bad schools. Democrats say giving that money to private schools guarantees that the public schools will never improve.

But Cristo Rey does not get the $6,300 per student from taxpayers. It gets the money from its students. They earn it as Chicago office workers, putting in an eight-hour day, five days a month, at a large assortment of banks, law firms, advertising agencies and financial offices in the gleaming towers of Chicago's Loop.

The priests who agreed to this child-labor scheme, first suggested by management consultant Richard Murray, say they did it because they were desperate for a way to pay for a school whose students had almost no money. They did not at first fully appreciate the wider significance of their experiment, and they were not even sure it would work.

"When we sent them out to work the first day in 1996 I felt like hiding behind my desk," said John P. Foley, the Jesuit educational missionary who was called back to his hometown after 34 years in Peru to serve as president of the school.

But it succeeded in ways they had barely dreamed of. Take the case of Pedro Jimenez, who starred in a video the school has made about their program. Jimenez got an excellent education in a prep school environment, and his family did not have to pay much for it. But that was not what he mentioned on the video.

"I don't think too many 15-year-olds can say they work at a law firm," he said, standing in a hallway of the Chicago firm Katten Muchin Zavis Rosenman. "I want to be a lawyer, so this works out great for me."

There have been some complaints. Foley once took a few students to Los Angeles to address a meeting of interested students and educators. One California teenager asked the Chicago group, "Don't you think its nuts that you are doing all this work and don't see any money out of it?" A Cristo Rey student answered, "Maybe I don't see any money, but I get an education."

And a good deal more. The office skills they acquire often lead to summer jobs, as well as opportunities to keep earning money while they are in college. Joshua Hale, the school's development director, said the parents made clear they did not want their children doing the sort of low-paid manual labor they had to do to support their families. They wanted something better for their kids.

Antonio Corona, a Cristo Rey senior, said he has learned to be patient and deal with many different office personalities at Katten Muchin Zavis Rosenman. He survived a crisis in his sophomore year when he delivered a gift fruit basket to the wrong person (the names were similar) and did not realize his mistake until the present had been gobbled up. The aggrieved party forgave him, and he now checks all names with great care. Edward B. Shealy, director of employee programs at the law firm, said 32 Cristo Rey students are working there this year, with fine performance reviews from their supervisors. "Some of the reviews say they are slow, or shy, but 85 percent of the reviews are excellent," he said.

Four Cristo Rey students share each $25,000-a-year office job. Their school attendance rate is 98 percent, and their high school graduation rate 93 percent, compared to the 59 percent rate of the public schools in their neighborhood.

I imagine some critics will say that there are not enough jobs for all the impoverished high school students who might benefit from such a program. But there is a long way to go before we run out of room for schools like Cristo Rey. In 2000, California venture capitalist B.J. Cassin was so impressed with his visit to the school that he spent $22 million setting up the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation to spread the Cristo Rey model. The foundation's Website,, shows similarly organized Catholic schools operating in Portland, Ore., Austin, Tex., and Los Angeles, with more scheduled to open this fall in Denver and New York. Feasibility studies are being done in Tucson, Ariz., Waukegan, Ill., Boston, Lawrence, Mass., Cleveland, New Brunswick, N.J. and New Bern, N.C.

Elsa Camargo, now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the daughter of a suit factory worker and a homemaker. She said that if Cristo Rey had not been created, she would have gone to Curie Metropolitan High, which tries to teach nearly 3,000 students in one place. "It would have been hard for them to give much individual attention," she said.

"We have broken the barrier between private education and the needy sectors of our society," Foley said. That is what government-funded vouchers were supposed to do, but it does not look like there will ever be much voter support for them.

So why not try Cristo Rey vouchers instead? They cost the taxpayers nothing, yet help change many young lives.