Melding Work and High School via Cristo Rey

  • Education
  • 2000

For years, venture capitalist B. J. Cassin gave scholarships to inner-city kids; then he wanted to help on a wider scale. In 2000 he and his daughter visited Chicago to investigate a new kind of Catholic high school. The Cristo Rey Jesuit High School not only provided low-income children with an excellent, values-rich education, it also offered a new financial model, after the loss of low-cost teaching by nuns wrecked the finances of most inner-city Catholic schools. Cristo Rey designed into its high school a corporate work-study program that has all students working entry-level jobs at firms like JPMorgan Chase or Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Four students share one full-time position. Each student works one day per week, then takes a full schedule of classes compressed into the remaining four days. The students thus acquire business familiarity, skills, and mettle that give them a foot in the door to white-collar professions. And the firms pay the school for the work received—which covers two thirds of the school’s expenses.

Cassin donated $12 million to expand Cristo Rey into a network of schools applying this shared work/learn structure. He also dedicated a large chunk of time to chairing the network. Each potential school first undergoes a nine- to 12-month feasibility survey, and those that pass are then given a half-million-dollar seed grant over three years, with additional start-up costs covered by local donors. In 2003, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was so impressed it began multimillion-dollar contributions to seed the creation of even more schools. Donors in particular cities, like David Weekley and others in Houston, have also paid for new schools.

A Gates official noted early on that the work-study component is especially valuable for Cristo Rey’s low-income students. Their “sense of confidence and efficacy” is striking, he observed. “They appreciate being treated as adults and given real responsibility. They also recognize they’re gaining valuable work experience and learning a lot of things they wouldn’t learn at school.”

By 2017, 9,000 students attended the Cristo Rey network’s 30 schools in 21 states plus D.C. They worked in 2,525 different partner businesses. Among the network’s graduates from the past five years, 90 percent have enrolled in college and persisted into their sophomore year—twice the rate of peers from the same socioeconomic background.