Earning Their Keep

A new breed of urban Catholic high school asks disadvantaged kids to work for their tuition.


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."

These start-ups are all committed to enrolling only low-income kids; network-wide, 72 percent of students qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. The schools are also committed to sending the vast majority of their graduates to college; of the 318 students who graduated from Cristo Rey Network schools in 2007, 316 were accepted to a two- or four-year college. That's better than 99 percent. (Nationwide, just 67 percent of students who graduate from high school start college shortly thereafter, and in big cities that figure can be much lower. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley held a press conference last spring to boast that the Chicago public schools had sent almost half of the class of 2007 to two- or four-year colleges.)

Such statistics make the staff of Christ the King Prep optimistic, although they still face plenty of challenges. Few things work right in Newark. In April a jury convicted former mayor Sharpe James on five counts of fraud. The public middle schools that supply many of Christ the King Prep's students are chronically failing; some Newark schools face escalating sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for failing to show adequate progress for seven years in a row. The district is neck-deep in improvement programs these days, and indeed 46 percent of 11th-graders passed the mathematics portion of New Jersey's High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) in 2007, up from 29 percent in 2003. Yet 46 percent is still frustratingly low, and that figure doesn't include the scores of kids who have already dropped out by the 11th grade. It is also averaged over a district that includes a few decent magnet schools. In 2007 only 14 percent of students at Newark's run-of-the-mill Malcolm X Shabazz High School were deemed at or above proficient on the mathematics section of the HSPA.

Activists sometimes like to blame poor school performances on a lack of funding, but this argument is simply laughable in Newark. According to the Census Bureau report Public Education Finances: 2006, Newark spends $21,295 on each of its 41,857 pupils. Across America, the average school spends about half that. Costs are often higher in cities, but the New York City schools spend just $14,951 per pupil, according to the Census Bureau; Washington, D.C., spends $13,446.

Newark is dangerous too. In 1996 Money magazine calculated that Newark was America's least safe city of more than 100,000 people. Crime rates have improved since then, but many Christ the King students knew the three college students who were murdered, execution-style, on a playground in August 2007. The school's first benefit may be that it is safe and welcoming.

Such places are rare in inner-city children's lives. Ed Glynn, the Jesuit priest who serves as Christ the King Prep's president, chastised one student during orientation for untucking his shirt upon leaving for the day. The student turned around and told him, "I live in the projects. I'll get beat up." Another student's mother called one day last spring and said to tell her son to go to his sister's house after school; there had been a shooting outside his own house and the police were swarming.

Many of Christ the King's 89 students arrived unprepared for high school work. James Cochran, a social studies teacher, assigned an essay about ancient Mesopotamia around the third week of school. "I got kids who gave me Wikipedia articles printed out," he says. "They didn't make any effort to conceal the fact that it was a Wikipedia article. It's not like they were plagiarizing and trying to hide it. They just thought that was how you did a report." They didn't understand that they were supposed to generate original thoughts and analysis. "They didn't know how to think," Cochran says. "I had to teach them how to think." By April, though, his ninth-graders were debating whether Emperor Augustus was better for Rome than the previous republican set-up. (Interestingly, most thought he was.)

'They Don't Treat Me Like a 14-Year-Old'

Placing high demands on kids reminds them that they are expected to do things with their lives. But talk to students at Cristo Rey schools, and they tell you that, for all their hours spent graphing algebraic equations, it is their jobs that get them thinking most about the future. In their gleaming office buildings, they see men and women who earn enough to afford nice, safe homes. They see how people set priorities and deadlines and execute projects. It's easy to mock corporate America, but compared with the chaos of inner-city life, a cubicle with your name on it can seem like heaven.

"I like my job a lot, since when I grow up I want to be a defense attorney," says Andrew Emanuel, a Christ the King freshman who works at the Newark branch of the law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, Nicholson, Graham. "I really enjoy socializing and conversing with most of the attorneys at my job. I ask them what's their motivation in life, and what keeps them going." They in turn tell him to stay in school and do his homework. It's standard advice, but it means more coming from people in his intended profession.

Cristo Rey students feel needed by their employers. When Christ the King Prep board chairman Neal Jasey goes around recruiting businesses to hire student teams, he mentions the P.R. and employee morale benefits of having young people around, but adds "I do argue that this is an economically sensible thing to do: $25,000 for a team of four kids—if you have that kind of [clerical] work—is a pretty reasonable cost." It's a win-win proposition; at full enrollment, earned income (which includes temp stipends and tuition) is supposed to account for 85 percent of a Cristo Rey school's operating budget. That's sustainable in a way that depending on church fund raising is not.

The kids are fully accountable for their performance at work. Christ the King Prep asked several students to leave this year because of difficulties with their employers. "They weren't getting the job done at work," says Principal Kevin Cuddihy. "And if you can't work, you can't pay the tuition, so you can't come back. It's that simple. Economic realities are harsh when applied to 14-year-olds, but that's the market forces at work here."

Largely because of these expectations, Cristo Rey kids are more polished and polite than even well-to-do teenagers. Each school holds a training camp in the summer to teach incoming freshmen how to behave in a professional environment. These young people shake hands. They look you in the eye. They know how to file and fax, and which fork to use if the boss offers to take them out to lunch.

They do a good job for their employers. Across the network, 92 percent of students receive an "outstanding" or "good" rating from their supervisors, and 87 percent of employers re-up. The employers also do well for the students, giving them contacts and experience that, unlike the McDonald's-type jobs kids might otherwise hold, send résumés to the top of the pile. In Chicago, participating employers include Citadel Investment Group, McKinsey & Co., and the Office of the Attorney General. In New York, they include Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs, and the New York Supreme Court. Abiezer Mendez, a recent graduate of the New York school, worked at JP Morgan Chase during the school year to pay his tuition. Last spring, the firm offered him a scholarship to Fordham University and internships for the duration of his college career. This package was offered with the understanding that this son of a building superintendent will most likely work for JP Morgan Chase after graduation. The connection between school and a future career can't get clearer than that.

Even if students don't plan to work for their employers or in a particular industry over the long term, the simple experience of being around caring adults helps kids have an optimistic outlook. Sol Mary Cotto, a Christ the King Prep student, works at Newark's Broadway House, a residence for people with HIV/AIDS. "They don't treat me like a 14-year-old," she says of the staff. "They treat me like I'm supposed to be treated." Rather than do another Secret Santa gift exchange this year, Broadway House's employees donated the money to Christ the King Prep to buy books. Cotto was thrilled to learn her co-workers had done this. It showed she was part of the team. Even wealthy teenagers could benefit from this kind of self-esteem boost.

Of course, the Cristo Rey model isn't the answer to all of America's school woes. For starters, no one has to attend Cristo Rey schools. Given that school is compulsory up to age 16 or 17 in many states, requiring work from public school students brushes close to constitutional problems. After all, the 13th Amendment allows "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" except as punishment for a crime—though it's not clear that labor for a business is any more "involuntary servitude" than requiring students to come to school in the first place. Some public schools require students to volunteer for a certain number of hours in order to graduate. That has not been terribly controversial, but having students man soup kitchens is probably an easier sell to the public than asking kids to file and fax for a private employer.

In addition, Cristo Rey schools have the advantages of being private and selective. Although they don't select based primarily on academic ability—indeed, academic superstars are sometimes encouraged to go elsewhere—they will refuse to take children with discipline issues. Principals can hire staff members who are drawn to the entrepreneurial culture and hence are more proactive than the average public school teacher. As I was interviewing school administrators in Newark, Principal Cuddihy paused and noted, "A lot of our stories end with 'and then I drove them home.'?" Cochran, the social studies teacher, puts in 12-hour days, yet he gushes that "it's like God created a job just for me."

Even given the model's limitations, though, the Cristo Rey schools present a challenge to the conventional educational wisdom. Not only do they show that it is possible to achieve good results with poor, minority young people; they show that it is possible to fund those results not with public money but by relying on businesses' self-interest. They show that teenagers are capable of more than most people think. "When you let young people work side by side with adults, give them meaningful adult responsibilities, and separate them from their peers because if they're trapped with their peers all the time, they're not going to advance—any program that does this finds the same thing: These young people rise to the challenge," says the psychologist Robert Epstein, author of The Case Against Adolescence.

The Cristo Rey schools also show that working to pay for education is good for kids. Students like Tiffany Adams, who wake before dawn to take two buses to get to school, clearly value their education already. Working too many hours can be problematic if it distracts from homework, but on the margin people value things more when they come with costs. One oft-cited 1981 study, conducted by researchers at Kansas State University, found that college students who worked one to 15 hours a week during school had slightly higher grade point averages than those who did not work. One possible reason binge drinking rates are lower at two-year colleges than at four-year colleges is that more junior college students are actually paying their own way. At Berea College in Kentucky, a school that caters to lower-income Appalachian students, everyone is required to work at least 10 hours a week in lieu of tuition. Internal studies found that this labor requirement actually boosts student engagement and retention.

Likewise, students at the Cristo Rey schools know they are working real jobs and earning real money that, rather than going to buy clothes or cell phones, is going to pay for their education. Hence education is a good that has value. That's a lesson that's lost in a system of free public high schools.

Laura Vanderkam is a freelance writer based in New York City.