Bright young minds
The work-study director of Cristo Rey Dallas College Prep was having trouble finding a student who was supposed to be in a business meeting in a crowded downtown coffee shop.
As he scanned the tables, he finally picked Andrew out of a group of 10 employees of the commercial real estate firm CBRE. In his blazer and tie with a laptop in front of him, the student fit right in and looked like any other young professional.
Kelby Woodard, president of Cristo Rey Dallas College Prep, loves to tell that story because it shows how Cristo Rey students — who spend one day per week working for companies like CBRE — integrate and collaborate at a high level. “These are 14- and 15-yearolds. Imagine what they’re going to do when they’re seniors!”
Not only do students develop a sense of pride, self-accomplishment, self-worth and self-confidence, Woodard said, they have the opportunity to interact with the free market, learn how it works and how to become part of it. Along the way, they gain beneficial experience and become valued employees.
The Cristo Rey model — now in place at 30 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia — was the inspiration of Jesuit Fr. John P. Foley, who, upon returning to his hometown of Chicago in 1995, wanted to start a Catholic college-prep school in a Hispanic, working class neighborhood on the city’s southwest side. Working with a team, he proposed a plan in which the school would partner with corporations and nonprofit organizations to allow each student to work five days per month in an entry level job for a fee that would go toward the student’s tuition.
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School opened in 1996, combining “rigorous academics” and Catholic moral values with work experience in law firms, banks and other professional settings. The Cristo Rey Network was established five years later after groups in Portland, Denver and Los Angeles expressed interest in starting schools.
Schools in the network serve only low-income students in urban communities where educational options are limited. Most go on to college at a rate consistent with that of high-income students, and they complete bachelor’s degrees at 2.5 times the rate of high school graduates from low-income families nationwide.
Two more Cristo Rey schools opened this summer in Baton Rouge and Tampa; six others are in development stages in places like Jacksonville, Fla., where Legate Doug Wilson is involved in a feasibility study to assess need and interest in that community.
Wilson learned of the Cristo Rey Network when Deacon Scott Conway, the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of St. Augustine, approached Legatus’ Jacksonville Chapter for help with a study to determine the need and capacity to support such a school.
Before the network will agree to add a school, a study also must assess the business community’s willingness to provide jobs, availability of facilities and possibilities for sponsorship by a Catholic religious entity. Each school is required to have a religious sponsor or endorser to ensure its Catholic identity and mission.
Wilson is a court-appointed guardian for abused and neglected children and a former trucking company executive. He said he believes in the Cristo Rey concept because it gives young people from low-income communities something to believe in and helps them discover how they fit into the world.
Deacon Conway concurs. “It takes students who are not necessarily in the greatest environments both at home and in school and gives them a true family at Cristo Rey where they can grow, use their skills, and learn new skills in the corporate world. What we’re doing is preparing not just future Catholics for college, but far beyond college, giving them the skills they need and the values they need for eternal life. It’s a great twofold model.”
Woodard, a member of Legatus’ Dallas Chapter, is a former business owner and state legislator in Minnesota. He said Cristo Rey links those who think they don’t have a chance with a system that the culture has told them is rigged against them.
As he sends students from Cristo Rey Dallas out into the workplace each week, he knows he’s giving them the opportunity to make connections that otherwise might not be available to them.
For example, he said, students who work at the Dallas Morning News know the newspaper’s owner and the editor. “They give them fist bumps in the hallway. They see that these guys worked hard, went to college and the system is within their reach. There is a benefit to the free-market system they can buy into and tap into.”
Legate Joseph Heidt, president of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis, said Cristo Rey offers students the opportunity to explore careers and to learn and develop the social skills and behaviors necessary for success well before they go to college or enter a profession. By contrast, he said, the seniors at the Catholic college prep school where he previously taught often didn’t know what they wanted to pursue in college and had limited exposure to career opportunities and the skills they would need.
“They knew they had to go to law school or medical school to be a lawyer or doctor, but beyond that, they didn’t have a great depth of understanding of what they had to study in college to become a professional. That was at a college prep school where 98% of the students went to college!”
At Cristo Rey schools, Heidt explained, students develop transferable skills in communication, time management and synthesizing information. Typically, he said, “those are skills students don’t embark on until their later years of college when they’re doing internships or when they’re out of college.”
Before she even started classes at Cristo Rey Dallas last year, 15-year-old Viviana Gomez was learning communication skills at the school’s required VIVA! Summer Institute. “It prepares you for the modern workplace and life in general. We had a communications class that talked about body language, eye contact, and tips and tricks with presentations. That honestly really helped.”
Viviana’s mother, Julia Gomez, said her youngest daughter used to be a “shy little girl,” adding, “Cristo Rey has helped her to develop her personality, to be able to speak in front of people without any fear. You learn those skills once you’re in college, but she’s learning at a young age how to speak in front of people. That’s one of the best opportunities Cristo Rey has given her.”
After just one year at Cristo Rey Dallas, during which she worked at a law firm, Viviana said she already recognizes the advantage of spending time in the workplace as part of her education.
“Having this experience,” she said, “we’re one step ahead of the game and really prepared for life.”
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.
Learn more: cristoreynetwork.org