Md. Jesuits may open high school in Baltimore

Low-income students would get work-study, college prep education

August 23, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Jesuits are considering opening a high school in Baltimore that would, for the first time, provide low-income students a Catholic college prep education combined with professional experience through a corporate work-study program.

The Rev. William J. Watters, S.J., who is chairman of a committee conducting a feasibility study, said students would earn tuition money by working part time in professional offices ranging from law and investment firms to banks and hospitals.

The purpose is to expose some of Baltimore's most disadvantaged students to a work environment that could help propel them to college and white-collar careers.

"We [can] act as a bridge into a world that most of these students have no knowledge of, no experience of and no hope at all of ever being a part of," said Watters, who is stepping down as president of St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, a well-regarded middle school for low-income pupils, so he can concentrate on the study.

The proposed school would be modeled on Cristo Rey, a Jesuit high school that opened in Chicago eight years ago to address high dropout rates in a largely Mexican immigrant community. Officials at Cristo Rey, which means "Christ the King" in Spanish, say that more than 80 percent of their graduates are in college.

Schools based on the Cristo Rey model have opened in Texas, Colorado, California and Oregon.

The Jesuits' proposal comes at a challenging time for public and parochial education in Baltimore. Despite improved test scores, the city school system continues to draw criticism as it recovers from last spring's budget debacle. Since February, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has closed three city schools, noting falling enrollment and rising maintenance costs.

The Jesuits plan to launch their feasibility study next month. Watters said it will take eight to 10 months and focus on three questions: Does the community want such a school? Will business leaders support it? And can the Jesuits find appropriate space to house it?

Watters said the early response has been good. In a phone interview, Mayor Martin O'Malley said he would share the city's portfolio of vacant properties with the Jesuits to help them find a potential location.

"I think it's a terrific and exciting concept for Baltimore," said O'Malley, a graduate of Jesuit-run Gonzaga College High School in Washington. "Jesuits clearly have a tremendous talent and effectiveness when it comes to education, and I think one of the most hopeful places I walk through in our city are the hallways over there at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy."

The Jesuits hope to find a rent-free property near downtown, with potential sites including vacant Catholic schools. Watters estimates that a former school could cost $250,000 to $500,000 to renovate, while other facilities could cost as much as $5 million.

Watters said the Jesuits would contribute some money to start-up costs and pursue the rest from foundations and private benefactors. The Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation in Massachusetts and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have provided the first four years of administrative costs for Cristo Rey schools.

Watters said the school could open as early as 2006 and eventually have a student body of 300 to 400.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore's school system is greeting plans for a Cristo Rey school with qualified enthusiasm. Diocesan School Superintendent Ronald J. Valenti said he admires Cristo Rey schools, but acknowledged that one in Baltimore might attract students from schools run by the archdiocese.

"Sure I'm concerned," he said. The question is: "How can we make sure as we entertain these innovative ideas that we all can coexist?"

Despite such questions, Valenti said he thought a Cristo Rey school would draw most of its students from outside the Catholic system. The proposed school would primarily take students who are eligible for federally funded breakfast and lunch programs. Valenti said most of the Archdiocese's high school students come from higher-income households.

A Cristo Rey school would not compete with St. Ignatius, which is a middle school and does not have a work-study program.

Officials say the proposed school could be attractive to families who are struggling financially. Students would spend one day a week in professional internships that would pay about $5,000 of the school's anticipated $7,000 annual tuition.

Jobs could range from visiting patients in a hospital to working in the mailroom of an investment firm. Watters said he hopes to find companies willing to employ four students each, at a yearly cost of $20,000 to $24,000.

Baltimore's business community contributes about $1 million in annual scholarships for at-risk youths in the archdiocese's city schools. But Robert C. Embry Jr., head of the Abell Foundation, said he thinks companies might be willing to support a work-study program, in part, because they would receive labor in exchange.

"In concept, at least, it isn't going to cost the company anything," said Embry. He said the Abell Foundation, whose endowment came from the sale of The Sun's parent company to Times Mirror Co., would consider participating in the program.

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