Jesuits Find a Working Model for Urban Schools

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

BALTIMORE _ His father and grandfather died. His mother struggled with drug addiction. He didn’t have a bed to sleep in or a coat to wear. His only meals were provided by his elementary school.

Arthur Williams couldn’t even imagine going to high school.

“I thought I’d probably be out on the corner selling drugs,” he said.

His teachers worried, too. Even if he did continue his education, less than 35 percent of Baltimore high school students earn diplomas, according to a recent Education Week study.

“We were very concerned that we would lose him,” said Debbie Rosenberg, Arthur’s social studies teacher at St. William of York Elementary School.

Then Rosenberg hit upon a possibility. A new Cristo Rey high school, part of a national model of Catholic high schools versed in reaching out to young students from risky backgrounds, was opening in Baltimore.

After interviews and tests, Arthur was accepted.

Last month, he began classes at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, one of the the newest nodes in a rapidly expanding network that uses a unique work-study program to make Catholic education affordable for low-income families.

On Tuesdays, the slender the 14-year-old dons a tie and commutes from Baltimore’s Boys Hope home to a downtown skyscraper, where he works in the office of community involvement at M&T Bank.

Cristo Rey was founded in 1996 in Chicago, after the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin asked local Jesuits to save his city’s crumbling Catholic schools. It’s since climbled quickly to the top of the education heap.

Including Baltimore’s school, seven new Cristo Rey high schools opened this year, bringing the national total to 19. (Washington, Minneapolis, Birmingham, Ala., and Newark, N.J. are among the cities with new Cristo Rey Schools this fall.)

The network will add three more schools in 2008. The goal is to have 12,000 enrolled students by 2012, said Jeff Thielman, Cristo Rey’s vice president for development and new initiatives.

The new schools join a network that sends more than 95 percent of graduates to college _ an eye-popping number compared to the rates at many inner-city school districts.

The success has earned Cristo Rey the accolades, and support, of high-profile donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given about $16 million to the schools. “Cristo Rey is magical,” Melinda Gates has said.

Meanwhile, Cristo Rey offers a boost to the beleaguered Catholic school system, which suffers from rising costs and declining enrollment, particularly in inner-city neighborhoods, where many schools have closed in recent years. Baltimore alone has lost four Catholic elementary schools and a high school since 2000.

“We know the number of Catholic schools has declined everywhere,” said Eileen Wirth, author of “They Made All the Difference,” a book about Jesuit high schools. “But here we have an inspiring movement that new schools are opening, and opening to serve children who need Catholic education more than anybody.”

The Cristo Rey model, which depends on the local community providing donations and jobs, cannot be mass-produced. Cristo Rey is not going to save the Catholic school system, Thielman said.

“We’re not in the business of saving Catholic education. We are providing an exciting alternative within the Catholic education realm,” he said.

And the school’s heavy workload and rigorous academics are not for everyone. Only 58 percent of Cristo Ray Network’s class of 2006 remained in school for all four years, according to Thielman.

“We take a risk on students that other Catholic schools don’t take a risk on,” he said. “We don’t want to get our retention rate higher by simply recruiting students who are stronger.”

Cristo Rey employees like to say “if you can afford to go here, you can’t.” The median income for the families of 121 students in Baltimore’s freshman class is just over $28,000.

Tuition at area Catholic schools runs from $6,000 to $9,000, while tuition at the Baltimore Cristo Rey ranges from $250 to $2,500, depending on a family’s ability to pay, said Mary Beth Lennon, the communications director of the school.

The students supplement their tuition by working one day a week at area businesses. Rotating teams of four students punch the clock at entry-level jobs at about 1,000 companies, including JPMorgan Chase, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Coca-Cola.

It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, Cristo Rey and the companies say. The school gets about $27,000 for each team of four students and the companies get stable, entry-level employees for whom they do not have to provide health care.

“Our students are out there every day. They are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and they are getting the work done,” said the Rev. John Swope, a Jesuit priest and Cristo Rey Baltimore’s president.

The students make up for the lost classroom time with an extended school year and school days that can last until 7:15 p.m.

During that time, they get the best in Catholic education, Swope said, including the Jesuit idea of “cura personalis,” or care for the person.

That includes everything from spiritual exercises to mandatory community service to learning how to answer the phone and make eye contact.

“I have a very inclusive understanding of what professional development is,” Swope said with a wry grin.

For Arthur, who looks forward to a career with the FBI, the development has already paid dividends. “My family is very proud of me,” he said.

KRE/CM END BURKE 925 words

Photos of Arthur Williams at home and at work are available via

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