Almost every weekday, 14-year-old Tiffany Adams rises before 6 a.m. in the Newark, New Jersey, home she shares with her grandmother and sisters. She dons her school uniform and catches two New Jersey Transit buses across the city, arriving at Christ the King Preparatory School, a Catholic high school that opened in September 2007, at 8. Most days she goes to the standard ninth-grade classes: algebra, Spanish, Western Civ. By all accounts, she excels at them. She is ranked first in her class. Her favorite subject is math, she says, “because it challenges me.”
But five school days a month, Adams skips the uniform and dons business attire. On those days, after a morning assembly, she bypasses the classrooms and hops instead into a van bound for Essex County College. There Adams works in the human resources department from 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. or so, scheduling résumé appointments, doing clerical work, and generally keeping the place functioning. Far from being a distraction, this opportunity to work while going to school is what drew Adams to Christ the King in the first place. “I thought it would be a good school for me to learn about business,” she says. “I would like to be an entrepreneur.”
Few teenagers are so concretely focused on their future careers. But Adams’ attitude is not unusual for the 89 freshmen at Christ the King Prep, part of a recently formed national network of Catholic schools that combine school and work. In the process, these “Cristo Rey” (Spanish for “Christ the King”) schools have stumbled on a new business model for private urban education—one that asks students like Adams to largely pay their own way.
At the 19 schools in the network (three new ones are opening this fall in Brooklyn, Detroit, and the west side of Chicago), four-student teams share entry-level clerical jobs at area employers. In exchange, these companies pay the schools $20,000 to $30,000 for each team. The subsidy of $5,000 to $7,500 per student keeps tuition low enough (usually around $2,500) that a prep school education becomes feasible for poor families.
This business model was born of necessity. But as the Cristo Rey Network has discovered in the 12 years since the first school opened in Chicago, the benefits go beyond financial sustainability. Introducing inner-city children to corporate America shows them the jobs they can have if they study hard and go to college. And that’s what the vast majority of Cristo Rey’s predominantly Hispanic and African-American graduates do.
The schools are also raising interesting questions about the financing of education. Sociologists have long pointed to systems of free, compulsory public schools as the international gold standard. There are many arguments for subsidizing education, and it’s certainly tragic when parents in poor countries pull their kids out of school because they can’t afford the fees. But with only half of public high school students in America’s 50 largest cities graduating on time, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. The successes of Cristo Rey schools suggest that one answer to America’s educational woes is not asking more of taxpayers but asking more of the students themselves.
Every year, according to America’s Promise Alliance (a children’s advocacy group run by former Secretary of State Colin Powell), more than 1 million students turn down additional free education and drop out of school. Even those who do graduate often fail to obtain the college education necessary for higher-paying jobs. In the U.S., according to 2005 Census Bureau data, only 18 percent of African-American adults and 12 percent of Hispanic adults have bachelor’s degrees. (The figures are 31 percent for non- Hispanic whites and 49 percent for Asian Americans.)
‘A Lot of People Thought It Was Pretty Crazy’
The first Cristo Rey school was founded in Chicago in 1996 to combat such frustrating statistics. A local order of Jesuits wanted to offer Hispanic children in the low-income Pilsen/Little Village neighborhood a college preparatory education, but the priests had no idea how to fund such a school. Although the Catholic Church has long tried to serve the poor, its inner-city schools have faced increasingly stark economic realities in recent years. Inner-city parents (or, often, grandparents) simply cannot pay anything near the per capita operating cost. In this era of multimillion-dollar sexual abuse lawsuits, Catholic schools can’t necessarily rely on archdiocesan support either. Fund raising is time-consuming and unreliable, and costs have risen as fewer women and men join the religious orders that taught for pittances at Catholic schools in the past.
Faced with these challenges, the Jesuits decided to meet with Richard Murray, a management consultant who had helped the group with fund raising ideas before. Murray gave the matter some thought. He recalled the internships he himself had done during school. Not only had he learned a lot from those jobs, but he figured his work had provided some value to his employers. So he suggested the students themselves could work in entry-level jobs to pay for their education at the proposed school. If teams of students shared jobs, there would still be enough time for instruction, particularly with an extended school day (a sound idea in its own right, since many inner-city children come home after school to empty houses).
It was an intriguing idea, although “a lot of people thought it was pretty crazy,” says Jeff Thielman, the Chicago school’s first director of development and currently the vice president of the Cristo Rey Network. “We were in a neighborhood people had given up on.” Would young people with limited English skills, living in single-parent homes in high-crime neighborhoods, be able to hold down jobs?
Despite such doubts, the Jesuits agreed to try, and eventually the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School of Chicago was incorporated as both a school and something akin to a temp agency. The students would be the employees of the temp agency, which would handle all payroll taxes. They would sign a contract assigning 100 percent of their school-year wages to the academy.
Then the Jesuits set about drumming up jobs at Chicago employers. They leaned on Catholic businessmen and then worked their way out through their professional networks. Eventually they found enough positions to place the students who had enrolled in the school for fall 1996. The Rev. John Foley, one of the Jesuits, likes to say that he wanted to “hide under the desk” when he first sent his rather rough new charges out into the Chicago business community. One kid reportedly stood outside a skyscraper for a long time, unable to figure out the revolving door.
But soon employers were calling to compliment the Jesuits on the most eager temps they’d ever seen. “No one quite expected that the kids could perform to the level they were performing in the work world,” Thielman says. “We found tremendous talent and tremendous potential among young people in that neighborhood.”
The Chicago school began to draw attention both from the news media and within the Catholic Church, and before long other groups wanted to start their own schools based on the same financial model. Soon a $9 million gift from venture capitalist B.J. Cassin enabled the formation of the national Cristo Rey Network, which standardized the process of creating a school. Portland’s De La Salle North Catholic High School opened in 2001. Los Angeles’ Verbum Dei High School, a fixture in Watts, restructured itself to become a Cristo Rey school in 2002. A $9.9 million gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003 enabled the network to open six schools in 2004, in places ranging from Cleveland to Tucson to New York City. Another $6 million Gates Foundation gift in 2006 provided start-up capital for seven schools that opened in 2007. These included Newark’s Christ the King Prep, which now enrolls 89 freshmen, and will scale up as it enrolls new and bigger classes of freshmen until it reaches 500 or so students in 2012. Three schools are opening this fall, and four other groups, in Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, and Cincinnati, are undertaking feasibility studies for opening in fall of 2009 or 2010. Foley says the network has a list of about 40 cities where a Cristo Rey school “would be a possibility.”