A Fund to Seed New Catholic Schools

  • Religion
  • 2015

B. J. Cassin has taken the venture-capital model that made him wealthy and applied it to his Catholic-schooling philanthropy. He was a key funder in building Chicago’s acclaimed Cristo Rey Jesuit High School from a single site in 2000 to a network of 32 schools in 22 states today, with more on the way. These Catholic schools now serve 10,700 low-income students each year, with excellent educational results (90 percent of graduates go to college, compared to 61 percent of similar low-income students, and 86 percent of high income students), affordable tuition, an acclaimed program for placing every student in a work-study job at one of 2,525 partner businesses, and a sustainable economic model. 

Now Cassin is seeking to amplify this success. He is part of a group of Catholics seeking new models for financing religious schools, whose enrollments as a proportion of the entire U.S. student body have declined by a third over the past half century. He and two colleagues have launched a philanthropic venture called the Drexel Fund that will invest in carefully selected academies, education entrepreneurs, and school networks with the intention of “transforming” and expanding faith-based schooling. The fund will raise $85 million from a variety of wealthy individuals and use it as venture capital to create tens of thousands of new seats in excellent, sustainable schools—most of them Catholic, but also including other religious orientations and some secular private schools.

“There are a lot of interesting new models in faith-based and especially Catholic schools, but we don’t have a platform to replicate the most successful ones,” Cassin says. “That’s where the idea of Drexel came from.” It seeks to do for religious schools what the NewSchools Venture Fund and the Charter School Growth Fund have done for charters: provide capital to scale up successful existing institutions and start promising new networks. Cassin gave $1 million in seed money and recruited several other donors, allowing the effort to launch in six states where tax credits or vouchers also help parents afford religious and private schools—Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

By 2024, Drexel’s funders aim to create 125 new schools, grow six to eight school networks, and cultivate 40 new school entrepreneurs. And if all goes according to plan, no more than 15 percent of a Drexel-supported network’s budget will come from philanthropy once it is fully functional.