Cristo Rey: a Fantastic Idea for Low-Income Catholic Schooling

So this is an especially edifying story I stumbled upon yesterday. A young woman at my work (at a Kansas City-based law firm, although I work out of the D.C. branch) was recently honored for some award due to her being a Cristo Rey student holding down a serious job at the same time.

This got me researching into Cristo Rey. I was dimly aware that they’d opened a new Cristo Rey High School in Kansas City about 3 years ago, but I was long since graduated from high school, and not around the City as much as I was used to (or would have liked). Anyways, it’s a great concept.

One of the biggest problems which students from low-income areas have in trying to “fit in” with business-class types is that there are hundreds of little things which you never really learn in school: how firmly to shake hands, what to wear to an interview, how to speak to executives, which fork to use, what are okay and not okay topics of conversation, etc. Cristo Rey sets out to solve that, in a unique program. It’s like low-income vocational school… for really sought-after vocations.

Here’s an exerpt from a pretty good write-up George Will did on these schools in the Washington Post:

The school exists to nurture a culture of achievement for children with no other option for college preparation, including those who in public schools might be diverted onto a vocational track. It is not skimming off the cream of the crop of local students; it rejects any who can get accepted by, and afford, other Catholic schools. Some especially promising students are directed to Catholic schools that offer scholarships. Which makes CRJHS’s college placement rate especially remarkable: In the past seven years, 99 percent of graduates have been accepted by at least one college, 75 percent of them four-year institutions.

CRJHS can have its work program, its entirely college preparatory courses (“the old, dead white man’s curriculum,” says an English teacher cheerfully), its zero tolerance of disorder (from gang symbols down to chewing gum), its enforcement of decorum (couples dancing suggestively are told to “leave some space there for the Holy Spirit”) and its requirement that every family pay something, if only as little as $25 a month. It can have all this because it is not shackled by bureaucracy or unions, as public schools are.

The “Cristo Rey model” is as American as another Chicago-area startup, McDonald’s. And like McDonald’s, the first of which was in suburban Des Plaines, the model is being replicated. The Cristo Rey Network now has 22 schools around the country, with four more coming by 2010.

It’s hard for me to see how even the anti-voucher crowd could oppose this. What a fantastic opportunity! The dress code at Cristo Rey is strict but affordable. Rather than having uniforms you have to purchase (like most Catholic schools), Cristo Rey’s dress code basically consists of “work-appropriate clothes.” Here’s the code for young men and young women. Some highlights:

  • Young men must wear ties
  • Men: belts must be visible at all times.
  • Women: One earring per ear
  • A whole list of banned styles for both sexes, from sports logos to denim shirts to white socks for boys (I wish someone would have clued me in to this fashion detail during high school).

For young people who want to have a job in banking, law, and so forth, but who come from families which cannot provide them the top-name schools, Cristo Rey seems like the perfect option. The school describes itself as helping out society, because banks and firms are more than ever interested in employing a diverse base of clientelle with non-standard backstories.

As for the work program which the George Will article referenced, it seems pretty impressive: my firm employs a Cristo Rey student, as does Georgetown (there’s also a Chicago Cristo Rey grad attending), and seemingly everywhere else I look.

Oh yeah, and the school charges parents monthly tuition, ranging from $500 to $2500 a year, depending on family need. For high school tuition, it’s really not bad, and the idea of tuition is to make sure that parents are involved (if they’re paying a good chunk of change, they’re going to be more likely to make sure that their kids work hard).

As someone who came from a working-class background, and has had so many doors opened in education because of scholarships, I have to say that my heart is really with these kids. A lot of them have it a lot worse than I ever had it: my family is all well educated, so I was speaking like a nerd before my first day of kindergarten, and I grew up speaking English, which is a huge benefit. If you want to donate to the Cristo Rey School system (and they seem like they can really use help), click here! And God bless you for it! If you can’t afford a financial donation (and even if you can), offer up some special prayers, that these young people get a quality Catholic education at the same time they’re getting ahead in business.

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