A mission to educate

August 24, 2004

THE DECISION by Maryland Jesuits to explore opening a new high school in Baltimore to serve low-income students got us thinking about what makes a Jesuit high school Jesuit -- and why anyone should care. What stands out is this Catholic order's directive to contribute "vitally" to the "total and integral liberation of the human person leading to participation in the life of God." Isn't that what education does best -- free us? In the best of ways, through knowledge.

The Jesuits take it a step further. They challenge their young men (and in some cities, women, too) to share that knowledge, to serve their communities, to give back in a demonstrable way. The Jesuit approach to education is one reason to encourage their plan for a new high school. But the students who would be served by this school are the more compelling reason. The Maryland Jesuits want to invest in kids whom others are less likely to take a chance on. Their investment would benefit Baltimore.

The proposal, now under study, would be to open a school modeled after Cristo Rey, a Jesuit high school in Chicago that focuses on a largely Mexican immigrant community with high dropout rates. Students would be drawn from impoverished families who qualify for federal assistance; the school would be open to children of all faiths. Parochial and private schools in Baltimore offer scholarships for poor kids, but many of those children are already primed for an educational experience outside the public schools. The Maryland Jesuits plan to offer work-study for students to help defray the estimated $7,000 tuition. Businesses and professionals would agree to employ students for one day of their school week.

That's the kind of partnering that should be occurring at more Baltimore public schools, especially as the city continues to develop theme-related high schools, including those centered on finance-tourism, Internet technology and health sciences. Much is being done, but more could be done, and Cristo Rey might well serve as a model for expanded involvement.

The effort by the Maryland Jesuits is being led by the Rev. William J. Watters, S.J., president of the St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, a middle school for low-income students founded on the grounds of the original Loyola high school and college. Father Watters is undertaking a feasibility study now. But if the high school is a go and business leaders in Maryland commit to it, the investment stands to pay off for Baltimore.

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