Cristo Rey: Keeping Urban Catholic Education Vibrant

Out of financial desperation, Father Foley created a corporate sponsored work-study program at this Little Village Catholic high school on Chicago’s westside.  Soon student work was helping to pay the bills.  And then something surprising occurred to students, teachers, parents, and Father Foley—the work-studies were often the most important experience in a student’s career at Cristo Rey.
The opportunity for low-income students to spend a day a week in a professional setting creates an opportunity, as Debbie Meier would say, to give young people the opportunity to be around adults they can imagine themselves becoming.
The idea spawned a national network of schools.  Rob Birdsell took the leadership reins three years ago and has shifted the focus from unit growth to academic growth—college success to be specific.
Student work has actually contributed more to the network of 24 high schools than the two big donors.  Corporate sponsorships brought in nearly $1 million per school last year often offsetting three quarters of the tuition bill.  Corporate partners, 1500 strong, include the likes of Allstate, Baxter, Dell, Deloite, Ernst & Young, KPMG, Nike, and UBS.  More than 20 Catholic universities appreciate the pipeline of well-prepared students and are also important network contributors.
More than three quarters of Cristo Rey graduates, all from low-income families, attend college—50% higher than typical with a larger percentage attending and graduating from four-year universities.
Cristo Rey schools serve low-income predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods where the typical college graduation rate is in the single digits.  About two thirds of Cristo Rey graduates will finish college—that’s about a ten fold increase in life opportunity with built in bias for community service.
While Rob pushes the quality agenda, he and his school partners are exploring strategies to further reduce cost and increase academic performance by incorporating online learning.
After decades of community building, it is sad to watch urban Catholic schools close or move to the suburbs.  While some parishes make the successful and amiable transition to charter schools, it is great to see Cristo Rey advancing a strategy that keeps the urban Catholic flame ablaze.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

John Foley

You are right, Tom. Little did we know that the experience of having the students work was much more than economically beneficial. I personally suspect that it is the key to helping students persevere in college.


Tom Vander Ark

What is striking about my visits to Cristo Rey schools is the sense of efficacy that I see in students--they walk up introduce themselves and are comfortable speaking with a group of adults.

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