While many Catholic schools are closing across the country, Cristo Rey schools are going strong and gaining a great deal of national publicity. Cristo Rey Network is a group of 24 college-preparatory Catholic schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia and in 22 cities, including Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities.
Cristo Rey schools are unlike most Catholic schools . The first school, Cristo Rey Jesuit School, was started in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago by Jesuit priest John P. Foley. Families in the largely Latino neighborhood asked the local priests to start a high-quality college-preparatory school for their children, as the local parents realized that their children could not have a better life without a college education. After the success of the first school, groups in other cities asked Father Foley to start schools, and the network was created in 2001. Based in Chicago, the network now runs schools that educate 6,500 students who live in urban areas and have limited educational options. Here’s how the schools in the network operate:
What Are the Students Like?
Ninety-five percent of Cristo Rey’s students are people of color, and their average family income is $36,000 per year. All of the students come from low-income backgrounds, and they would not otherwise have access to a college-preparatory high school education. The school, while Catholic in its mission and supported by the Catholic church, accepts students of different faiths and backgrounds. All students are expected to attend religion classes, even if they are of another faith. The students in Cristo Rey schools must balance their usual school work and extracurricular activities with a work-study program, and they must begin this program as soon as they enter high school, at age 14 or so.
What is the Program Like?
Four days a week, Cristo Rey students are educated in a rigorous college-preparatory program. One day per week, all of the students are required to participate in a corporate work-study program. These jobs are used to fund the students’ education. Some of the largest corporate partners of Cristo Rey programs across the country include the American Red Cross, Deloitte LLP, Pitney Bowes, and the YMCA. There are many corporate partners in different communities nationwide.
The work-study program works this way: Students give their earnings to the Cristo Rey Network, and their wages cover 70% of the cost of their education, making the cost of a Cristo Rey education much less than the approximately $5,000-$8,000 per year charged by most Catholic schools across the country. Students aren’t on the payroll of the companies or other institutions they work for; instead, the network’s work-study program acts as an employee leasing agent. Students work in groups to share their jobs; that is, a few students will work on the same job, each one day per week. Most of their work involves entry-level tasks such as coping, filing, and answering phones.
Students do not miss their classes to participate in the work-study program; instead, classes are scheduled around students’ work schedules. Students are able to bring what their learn from their jobs into the classroom, and the balance between working and studying helps them become ready to tackle the responsibility of college and a future work life. The students learn about how to handle themselves in the workplace, and they also gain confidence from working. The students are also given mentoring and counseling, and the schools have a longer school day and go until late June.
The gradates of the school do very well in college admissions. According to the network, one-hundred percent of Cristo Rey’s graduates attend two- or four-year colleges, and eighty-five percent of the classes of 2008 and 2009 were enrolled in college two years after graduation, as compared to about 40% of comparable students nationwide. The college completion rate of low-income students nationwide is about 10% by age 24 on average, but Cristo Rey graduates’ college completion rates are much higher. Graduates of the schools have been accepted into prestigious colleges such as Georgetown, at which the Cristo Rey Network also runs a pre-college summer program. Villanova University is also a partner of the Cristo Rey Network. The Cristo Rey provides a route to college for thousands of students who would not otherwise be able to have this opportunity.