Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

From Poverty to Prep School

There is no shortage of good intentions, but there often is a paucity of good ideas that pan out, especially when it comes to pulling people out of poverty.

Leave it to the Jesuits to come up with an idea that works, attracts funding and can be scaled to reach more than a handful of people.

chicago_2Cristo Rey Network is a chain of Jesuit-run prep schools exclusively for students from lower income families, often with no family members who have attended, let alone graduated from college.

Network schools feature a curriculum that includes a 4-day week in the classroom, with the fifth day working in a professional setting provided by corporate sponsors. Students are paid for their work, which covers a big chunk of their prep school tuition.

Founded in 1996 in Chicago, there are now 26 Cristo Rey high schools, including one in Portland – De La Salle North Catholic High School. They have enrolled 8,000 students, 96 percent of whom are African-American or Latino. The network has lined up 1,700 corporate work study jobs in banks, hospitals, law firms and nonprofits. Five more high schools are poised to open as early as next year.

Cristo Rey officials say 100 percent success of their graduates have been accepted at 2- or 4-year postsecondary institutions.

De La Salle HS WinnersThree De La Salle North Catholic High School graduates were named 2014 Gates Millennium Scholars, an award that is accompanied by a “good-through graduation” full-ride scholarship to the college of their choice. There are only 1,000 awards made annually nationwide and 21 in Oregon. The three students are going, respectively, to the University of Portland to study psychology, the University of Washington to major in business and Dartmouth College to pursue biology and a career in public health.

Five Cristo Rey prep schools were listed by The Washington Post among the 41 most challenging high schools in America. The schools were in Chicago, Boston, Houston, San Francisco and Waukegan, Illinois.

Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles, a well known training ground for top football and basketball talents, converted itself to a Cristo Rey “Jesuit Work Study” college prep school. Instead of working with the LA Lakers, students intern in high-profile LA law firms. All of the Watts school’s graduates have been accepted to college, none on athetic scholarships.

Not surprisingly there is a long waiting list to get in. Cristo Rey officials say they are only able to admit a third of qualified applicants – that is, applicants who can read at least at a seventh grade level when entering high school.

As private educational institutions, Cristo Rey prep schools admittedly have more flexibility.But flexibility isn’t the key ingredient here. It is blending study with work in ways that affirm the value of students who grew up in poverty and could barely see a way out.

Cristo Rey prep schools may not be the entire answer. But give the Jesuits credit for coming up with a good answer that is already touching many lives and promising to touch even more in the future. And it isn’t even a completely new idea. It is a revival of the inner-city Catholic education mission.

In addition to giving students a quality college-prep education, these high schools can become neighborhood centers that restore pride and purpose. They also employ 40 to 75 people at each school, which adds income to impoverished areas.

Creating opportunity for those with little chance is a victory in the battle to overcome economic inequality. We need a lot more soldiers to follow Cristo Rey’s lead.

 

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