Cristo Rey Jesuit High School junior Ginell McLean, left, talks… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
Ginell McLean, hair pinned up in a bun, a black-and-gray jacket over a button-down shirt, looks like everyone else working in cubicles at the Towson firm that employs her.
The only dead giveaways that she's a 17-year-old junior in high school are the backpack on her desk and the SpongeBob SquarePants watch on her wrist.
McLean's five-day-a-month job at insurance brokerage RCM&D isn't after school. It's an integral part of school. Like all 246 students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore, she's working to pay for a big piece of the cost of her education — and to get hands-on professional experience.
"You learn responsibility," said McLean, who lives in West Baltimore.
The idea, born out of financial necessity in the 1990s for the first Cristo Rey Jesuit school in Chicago, is spreading across the country as one answer to two bedeviling questions: How can a private, college-prep education be made affordable for lower-income families? And how can high schools turn out graduates employers will want to hire?
Both the funding strategy and the extent to which work is integrated into the school day are "very unusual," said James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.
The Baltimore school, one of two dozen in the Cristo Rey Network, opened just west of Patterson Park in 2007. Its first senior class will graduate next June.
More than half the students come from families earning less than $30,000, so the tuition they pay is low — from $575 to $2,500 a year, depending on parents' means. Donations cover some of the gap between tuition and costs, but the biggest chunk of funding — about 45 percent of the total — comes from students' sweat equity.
The $6,250 each teen-ager earns for a year of part-time work, paid directly by employers to the school, is "a dead-serious part of our business plan," said the Rev. John Swope, president of the Baltimore school and a member of the Jesuit religious order. Each student — 14-year-old freshmen included — is placed in a job at businesses across the region, from T. Rowe Price to the Johns Hopkins University to Under Armour, the Baltimore-based sports-apparel company.
"Essentially, we're running a $2 million staffing company inside the school," he said.
Companies get daily coverage of entry-level tasks by hiring a team of four students for $25,000. Each teen-ager works a set day per week and takes one of the leftover days each month.
The model grew from a simple but revolutionary suggestion to Jesuits in Chicago, who were trying to launch a Catholic school in a poor immigrant neighborhood and needed a funding source. Tuition alone couldn't begin to cover costs.
A consultant asked them: What if the kids worked?
It was an audacious idea, that "some of the best companies in Chicago" would hire teen-agers for entry-level office jobs that adults normally fill, said Rob Birdsell, president of the Cristo Rey Network. Finding firms willing to give it a chance wasn't easy, and the educators who launched the school in 1996 were on tenterhooks as they sent their charges into the work force. Would employers back out?
"The phones started ringing, and they said, 'Send me more — these kids are great,' " Birdsell said.
In 2001, an intrigued venture capitalist donated $12 million to help the school replicate itself across the country. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given nearly $16 million — some of which went toward the Baltimore startup. Six communities, from Philadelphia to San Diego, are working to join the 24 with Cristo Rey schools.
Every student in the network's Class of 2010 has been accepted to college, Birdsell said. Most will be the first in their families to go. And they'll have more impressive resumes as freshmen than many graduating seniors.
G.R. Kearney, who wrote a 2008 book about the Cristo Rey movement after working as a full-time volunteer at the Chicago school, sees it as an inspiring story of success despite "what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles."
"A lot of it was just luck and timing," said Kearney, who now works for an investment group in Chicago. "They happened to do this when the economy was roaring."
The Baltimore school, by contrast, opened on the eve of the nation's financial crisis. As conditions worsened, leaders had the unenviable task of finding jobs for teen-agers while companies were laying off seasoned employees. In the final push to line up enough positions for the current school year, staffers were gathering for twice-daily sales meetings with a war-room atmosphere.
They managed it — full employment as Baltimore's jobless rate ratcheted past 10 percent. They'll need even more jobs in the fall as they enter their first school year with a senior class, so they never stopped recruiting.