In 1996, Jesuit leaders in Chicago looking to help the city’s Hispanic community opened Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a school that took an innovative approach to parochial education for low-income urban youth by combining school and employment.
The model worked so well that 20 years later, Cristo Rey has become a network of 32 schools in 21 states. It plans to increase enrollment from about 11,000 today to 14,000 by 2020 and has targeted 15 localities for possible growth.
Now, organizers in Richmond are looking to bring the concept here.
“There’s really no options ... for kids who just want a four-year, college preparatory, private education, which really eludes them given their economic conditions,” said Alexa Quinn, chairwoman of the Cristo Rey Richmond High School initiative.
What’s driving her and the other organizers is reaching young people from low-income families from throughout Richmond who have few options to get an education from a preparatory school.
Quinn said there are organizations that cater to disadvantaged students from prekindergarten through eighth grade, but the options are limited for high schoolers.
Cristo Rey Richmond, she said, will give those students that opportunity and, as someone recently told her, “kind of finishes the pipeline.”
Organizers are focused on completing a required feasibility study; raising $2.5 million to get the school up and running; identifying corporate allies; and finding space, preferably in Manchester or the city’s East End.
The plan is to open the school here with about 100 ninth-grade students in the fall of 2018.
What makes the Cristo Rey schools different from other Catholic and private schools is the model it uses, the Rev. John P. Foley said last week. Foley is the Chicago priest who helped to create and open the original Cristo Rey.
The schools in the network work as classrooms and as employment agencies, he said.
Students work one full day per week in a real, entry-level job through a corporate work-study program. The money they earn goes toward their tuition.
Families also pay tuition, but it’s based on their ability, with the average family paying $900 per year, Quinn said.
In order for the students to meet their educational requirements, the school year is 10 months, which is longer than average.
Foley said it’s important to note that these are serious jobs and students are required to be professional. Those who do not show up on time, do shoddy work or do not take their responsibilities seriously can — and have been — fired.
According to the network, 94 percent of students “meet or exceed expectations in the workplace.”
Nationwide, 2,325 companies employ 9,951 Cristo Rey students. Total revenue generated by the work-study program was more than $50 million for the 2014-15 school year.
Among the companies that have worked with the network are American Express, AT&T, Credit Suisse, Nike and United Health Group.
Quinn said local organizers are working to identify corporations that will hire the students here, and they are in touch with national companies with local ties that already are working with Cristo Rey.
The idea behind the work-study program, Foley said, is to introduce students to work while giving them a stake in paying for their education. It also teaches them job skills and responsibility.
Foley said the approach helps to create students who are better prepared to tackle a rigorous academic workload.
“They learn tremendous disciplinary skills — to pay attention to details, being on time, making a calendar for themselves, knowing when something is due,” he said.
According to Cristo Rey, 100 percent of its graduates are accepted to college and 90 percent enroll, and they complete college at 2½ times the rate of low-income high school graduates.
Cristo Rey’s growth comes as the number of Catholic schools in the U.S. and enrollment continue to fall.
The National Catholic Educational Association reports that “in the 10 years since the 2006 school year, 1,511 schools were reported closed or consolidated” and the number of students declined 17.6 percent.
In that time, 314 schools opened. The actual decrease in the number of schools since 2006 is 14 percent, the association found.
“The thing that’s most surprising is that neither (the consultant who first came up with the model) nor we had any idea what a potent educational model this was. We thought it was a way to get money into the school,” Foley said.
“It did turn out to bring money into the school, but it turned out to be so extraordinarily more than that. It turned out, much to all of our surprise, a tremendously educational experience.
“The kids’ self-esteem goes through the roof, they begin to think they have a future in life, and there’s a place for them in the corporate world. They get excited about life.”