School Work

Can having kids earn their own tuition lead to success in school?

June 17, 2007|By Julie Turkewitz | Julie Turkewitz,Sun Reporter

The first classes at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago began in a roller-skating rink.

It was 1996 and the Rev. John Foley had come to Chicago's Southwest Side to begin a college-prep program in a neighborhood of Mexican immigrants. He wanted to provide an elite education for those who couldn't afford it.

The problem was money. None of these kids could pay the tuition private schools normally commanded.

Then Foley hit on a shockingly simple idea: He would send students out into the workforce to earn their own tuition. Chicago businesses liked it. Students liked it and excelled. The reaction was incredible, Foley said.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article about Baltimore's Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Sunday's Ideas section, a photo caption listed the incorrect year that the Rev. John Foley founded the first Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. It was 1996.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The skating rink, a temporary location, soon made way for a real school and, in the years that followed, Foley began to replicate his Chicago success in cities across the nation.

The Cristo Rey Network was born. "People were so desperate for a new idea for education that any new idea, they said `Let's do it,' " he said.

In 2006, the network graduated more than 91 percent of its senior class. A full 96 percent of graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college.

Now, Baltimore is about to get its own Cristo Rey Jesuit High School on South Chester Street in Upper Fells Point.

The school's debut couldn't come at a better time.

Last week, Education Week ranked Baltimore as having the third worst high school graduation rate in the nation. Just 34.6 percent of Baltimore students graduated four years after they began high school, said the study based on 2004 data.

Maryland School Assesment scores released Wednesday show that Baltimore students in sixth through eighth grades are improving. But their scores still lag far behind students elsewhere in the state. Just 44.7 percent of city eighth-graders scored at advanced or proficient levels on their reading test this year, compared with 68.4 percent of Maryland students overall.

"I think there was really a need for an alternative for high school for Baltimore residents," said Mary Beth Lennon, the new school's director of communication.When Foley ambled into the school's administrative building one day last week, wearing practical black round-toed shoes and thin-rimmed glasses, he was hardly the picture of a superstar. But the parents meeting him at the office shook his hand vigorously and gushed shamelessly. "Here's the celebrity," said one.

They had reason to gush. In 2001, the number of Cristo Rey schools grew to two, then three and four and then suddenly ten in 2004. This past fall there were 12, all in urban areas, all solely for kids from the bottom rungs of the income scale. There were almost 3,000 students at Cristo Rey schools this past fall. The opening of the Baltimore school is part of an expansion this year to 19 schools that also includes one in Washington.

In urban areas where schools - public, private and charter - are often starved for funds, Foley seems to have hit on something special. How, in areas of overwhelming poverty, high levels of crime and sinking graduation rates, have these schools succeeded?

Foley attributes the model's success to the "mission-minded" people who staff the schools, as well as the small-group environment and rigorous academic and work program of the school.

Most uniquely, the work-study business model has allowed each of the high schools to be nearly self-sustaining. "The biggest benefactors are our students," said Foley. And it's true - the goal is that at each school, student wages will bring in 70 percent of the operating budget. The remainder comes from donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and student tuition, which ranges from $250 to $2,500, depending on a student's economic situation.

Has Cristo Rey discovered a feasible and sustainable way to provide a college-prep education for urban kids?

Private schools have traditionally been used as escapes in areas where public schools battle with poor student behavior, low test scores and budget issues. Private schools often offer smaller, more focused environments.

But the average freshman-year tuition at a Catholic school is $6,906, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. In Baltimore, tuition can cost thousands more, a steep price in a city with a median household income of $30,078, according to the 2000 census. For many parents, private school just isn't an option, even with scholarships.

As a result, declining enrollment has plagued urban Catholic schools because they are mostly tuition-driven.

"When you have escalating costs and when you have the only basic resource as tuition, you have the perennial problem of, `How do you keep tuition down?' and at the same time, `How do you reach the costs that it takes to educate a child?' " said Ronald Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools in Baltimore.

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