Blog: The Educated Reporter

At Catholic High School, Chicago Students Earn While They Learn

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School's principal Pat Garrity, left, and its vice president of advancement, Elizabeth White. (Sarah Darville for EWA)

When Carolyn Alessio assigned her students to prepare to act out a trial to probe the themes of “Frankenstein,” she was surprised at what she found at the top of a few of their supporting documents — perfectly formatted docket numbers.

Other students might not have thought to include them on faux legal paperwork created for an English class. But Alessio’s did, because many of her students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago work in law offices one school day each week. Their paychecks, and those of classmates working in hospitals, government offices, or the Best Buy Geek Squad, go back to their (private) school to help pay tuition — an arrangement that makes Cristo Rey an especially interesting place to attend high school. 

The Catholic school, in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, has found a way to sustainably serve low-income families by integrating real, paying work into the school week. A few dedicated staffers secure hundreds of paying jobs throughout the city, each of which is shared by four students.

When ninth graders arrive at Cristo Rey, they become both students and employees known by the day they are off campus — “Monday workers,” for example. 

On a tour of the school in April, Yulissa Ibarra, a senior, told reporters that she had spent that weekday at the Northwestern Medical Center helping to input data in the emergency room. Now, she is planning to enroll in the nursing program at St. Louis University in the fall.

“I found my passion for nursing there,” she said.

That outcome — work experience helping a student earn her high school diploma, while also providing exposure to real career paths — is an ideal one for Cristo Rey. The model is flourishing in Chicago, school officials said in April, with the school now serving almost 550 students. The national Cristo Rey network has 9,000 students and is growing quickly, with two schools set to open in fall 2015. By 2020, the goal is 40 schools serving 12,000 students, officials said. (The visit in April was arranged as part of the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar in Chicago.)

The setup naturally raises dozens of logistical questions. How do the schools coordinate classes? (Monday workers attend classes with Monday workers.) How do they have enough time to squeeze five days of learning into four days? (Students don’t have much academic flexibility; arts instruction is nonexistent during the school day.) How do the bills really get paid? (Work covers about 70 percent of tuition, while philanthropy and parent contributions cover the rest.)

The model also requires some advance planning, since students arrive as nervous 13- and 14-year-olds, not entry-level employees. To help bridge the gap between students’ skills and companies’ expectations, a two-week summer training program teaches basic tasks with Microsoft Outlook and Excel, plus how to file and fax, since most of the students’ jobs are clerical. 

The training covers other ground, too, like email etiquette and even “how to talk to adults about what you ate for lunch,” said Elizabeth White, who oversees fundraising and external relations for the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. The school relies on students’ workplace mentors to start conversations about college and careers that stimulate the students. In return, companies get work done for a rock-bottom salary and get to say they’re doing good in the process. 

“This is not charity,” said Lillie Sellers, who works on the school’s corporate relationships, though officials acknowledged that participating companies are motivated by more than the direct return on investment. There’s also the community goodwill engendered by the partnerships, and the chance to keep pace with competing companies or firms that also work with Cristo Rey students.

The Cristo Rey network got off the ground with $18.9 million in seed funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation. Philanthropy continues to play a role at the Chicago school. White said the school brings in about $500,000 from foundations every year, and raises $2 million overall in private donations.

Philanthropy also built the school’s small campus, which resembles that of a more traditional private school. A tour showcased a cavernous, sparkling gymnasium, with weights and exercise machines on an upper level. The library is cozy and well stocked. The two buildings feel new and the hallways roomy, even when students are changing classes. A quiet computer lab is reserved just for staff members to learn how to use Smart Boards and new software. 

As a Catholic school, Cristo Rey doesn’t take all comers. Students who want to attend must interview with staff and faculty, and their past academic and discipline records are reviewed. The Chicago school isn’t necessarily looking for superstars — ”We take those B and C students” with potential, White explained — but it is looking for students who will be able to accept the school’s rigid structure.

Students at the Chicago campus must also speak Spanish, and the school pays attention to its students’ linguistic heritage, according to school Principal Pat Garrity. Some classes are taught in Spanish, and all students must take the Advanced Placement exams for both Spanish language and literature. Garrity said 96 percent of students passed the AP Spanish language exam in 2014, and 82 percent passed the more difficult literature exam. 

The school has begun to shift its focus from simply getting students into college to keeping them there once they arrive. An emergency fund offers cash to students in need of textbooks or to cover unexpected fees during college. In addition, the school employs a full-time staff member to work with recent graduates to help keep them on track as they pursue higher education. 

“Our goal is that everyone sees college as within the realm of possibility,” White said.