During her time as an editor at U.S. Catholic magazine, journalist Megan Sweas saw firsthand what graduates of the Cristo Rey network could accomplish. One Cristo Rey student worked alongside her during the course of a year, as part of the private school’s work-study program.
“The Catholic Church has a long tradition of educating children in low-income urban communities, but this tradition has been threatened in recent decades by rising costs and declining enrollment,” Sweas says, noting that the Cristo Rey model started as a solution to that financial question. “I welcomed the opportunity to delve into this program that so many say is the bright spot of Catholic education, figure out how it worked and what lessons might be applicable to education more broadly.”
She went on to become the author of “Putting Education to Work,” a book profiling the 28 schools that comprise the Catholic private school network. Sweas spoke with Education Dive about her new book, her reporting on Cristo Rey, and what Catholic schools' education model can offer the U.S. public education system.
EDUCATION DIVE: Why did you write this book?
MEGAN SWEAS: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and volunteered in the Pilsen neighborhood, where the first Cristo Rey high school opened its doors in 1995. After college, I worked at a youth media program based in a nearby charter school and got to know Cristo Rey's program better. I became more interested in the questions of education reform and continued to follow the debates as an editor at U.S. Catholic magazine. We had a Cristo Rey student worker for one year of my tenure at the magazine. Though I've never attended Catholic school and support public education, I welcomed the opportunity to delve into this program that so many say is the bright spot of Catholic education, figure out how it worked, and what lessons might be applicable to education more broadly.
What makes the Cristo Rey model work?
SWEAS: The Catholic Church has a long tradition of educating children in low-income urban communities, but this tradition has been threatened in recent decades by rising costs and declining enrollment. The Cristo Rey model started as a solution to the financial question. The high school students work one and occasionally two days a week in corporate internships. The businesses, in turn, pay the schools a fee that covers most of the students' tuition. This makes it economically viable to educate low-income students who could not otherwise afford Catholic education, but the work-study program also is an essential part of the' education process. It can persuade them to care about their classes and go to college. They can find career paths and mentors. Work also helps them develop the character traits — accuracy, attention to detail, persistence — that are essential to success in school and life.
More broadly, the Cristo Rey model works because of Network and schools' efforts to constantly improve the model and serve their students better. They practice what they preach to students — to be lifelong learners.
You write that Cristo Rey combines “the best of Catholic education with the lessons of education reform.” What lessons are you talking about, and what does the “best of Catholic education” mean, in practical terms?
SWEAS: It's commonly assumed that Catholic schools are better and more rigorous than public schools. The landmark studies comparing the two types of schools are decades old, and I'm not sure this is necessarily true for every school these days. Traditionally, however, Catholic schools provide a college-prep curriculum in a loving, supportive, disciplined environment.
When the Cristo Rey Network started expanding across the country, the assumption was that Catholics know how to do education. But the Network started realizing that the academic program at many of the schools needed attention. Together, the schools wrote a college-prep curriculum, which was later aligned with the Common Core. They use data to track progress and make sure students are learning, not to punish teachers or students. They started training teachers and academic leaders in the best practices for the classroom.
Even with "character" education — the strength of Catholic schools — the Cristo Rey approach incorporates secular language and research into their programs. They speak of grit and growth mindset, while also teaching students that they have been created in the image and likeness of God. All of these ideas help the teenagers gain confidence as scholars and as individuals.
Some charter and private schools have been accused of “cherry-picking” students in order to bolster graduation and/or college acceptance rates, ensuring that the schools appear successful to funders and donors. How does Cristo Rey choose its student body?
SWEAS: Cristo Rey schools are private so they can choose their students, but they try to avoid cherry-picking the best students. There is one rule that all Cristo Rey schools must follow in their admissions: students' families must earn under 75% of the median income, locally or nationally. The national network tracks the average family income for schools to make sure they remain committed to the model.
Schools handle recruiting and admissions differently, depending on the city and competition from other schools. But in general, admissions determined by interviews more than test scores. Schools are looking for students who are willing to work hard and who seem as though they'll be employable in the work-study jobs (with training). The average freshman is 2 years behind grade level.
If an academically superior student can earn a scholarship to a traditional private school, many Cristo Rey schools say they will encourage them to go to that school. At the same time, they don't want to deny such a student the opportunity to benefit from Cristo Rey if that is the best program available.
Why is it good for economically disadvantaged kids to work in corporations in exchange for education?
SWEAS: I often heard donors and work-study sponsors say they wish their kids could go through this type of program. Work programs can teach cognitive skills like attention to detail and persistence to all teenagers. But kids from middle and upper-class communities often gain these skills through extracurricular activities and learn how to pursue a wide variety career paths through their parents and social networks. College is a given for them.
For kids from low-income communities, they may not know what options are available to them, how to pursue them or who can help them. The work-study program expands their horizons for the future and gives them a reason to study hard and go on to college.
Students are “cheap, reliable labor,” you note. How are freshman and sophomore students under the age of 16 able to work? What kinds of tasks do working students execute in corporate settings?
SWEAS: Students must be 14 by the time their freshman year starts, which is the legal age at which they can work.
Students do clerical tasks like filing, entering information in databases, reception work. If they stay with the same firm for multiple years, they can be trained to do higher level work as well. One senior, for instance, was creating reports for the HR department of an insurance provider and learning how to do pivot tables in Excel.
Are any students disserved by Cristo Rey?
SWEAS: Cristo Rey schools aren't for everybody. Students with learning disabilities or individual education plans may struggle with the schedule. One school discovered that if students don't have one supportive figure in their personal life — a parent, grandparent, older brother or sister — their journey would be more difficult. If students aren't mature enough to stay employed, they aren't going to succeed at Cristo Rey.
Teachers and administrators I spoke with seemed to truly believe in every student's ability to achieve, but there are restrains in their ability to help every student.
Did you observe any flaws, weaknesses, or challenges within the Cristo Rey system?
SWEAS: Many schools (but not all) struggle to raise enough money through the work-study program and donations to provide competitive salaries for teachers. While many teachers are committed to teaching in low-income communities and/or Catholic schools, it's difficult to retain teachers for long without competitive pay. Consequently, teachers tend to be younger and less experienced.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for any school that serves students from a low-income community is convincing students that they can be successful. Leaders of Cristo Rey schools would like to see their retention numbers improve. I could see a sharp difference between the attitudes of sophomores and juniors — they had "bought into" the program. The challenge is to help students make that shift earlier.
One of the next challenge that the high schools are working on is helping graduates succeed in college, whether through preparing them for college while they're still in high school or supporting them after they've graduated.
What I most admire about the Cristo Rey system is that the people within it continually strive to improve the program. They teach students to be lifelong learners by example. The schools may never have 100% of entering freshmen go on to graduate and succeed in college, but they are shooting for it.
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