The first classes at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago began in a roller-skating rink.
It was 1996 and the Rev. John Foley had come to Chicago's Southwest Side to begin a college-prep program in a neighborhood of Mexican immigrants. He wanted to provide an elite education for those who couldn't afford it.
The problem was money. None of these kids could pay the tuition private schools normally commanded.
Then Foley hit on a shockingly simple idea: He would send students out into the workforce to earn their own tuition. Chicago businesses liked it. Students liked it and excelled. The reaction was incredible, Foley said.
The skating rink, a temporary location, soon made way for a real school and, in the years that followed, Foley began to replicate his Chicago success in cities across the nation.
The Cristo Rey Network was born. "People were so desperate for a new idea for education that any new idea, they said 'Let's do it,' " he said.
In 2006, the network graduated more than 91 percent of its senior class. A full 96 percent of graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college.
Now, Baltimore is about to get its own Cristo Rey Jesuit High School on South Chester Street in Upper Fells Point.
The school's debut couldn't come at a better time.
Last week, Education Week ranked Baltimore as having the third worst high school graduation rate in the nation. Just 34.6 percent of Baltimore students graduated four years after they began high school, said the study based on 2004 data.
Maryland School Assesment scores released Wednesday show that Baltimore students in sixth through eighth grades are improving. But their scores still lag far behind students elsewhere in the state. Just 44.7 percent of city eighth-graders scored at advanced or proficient levels on their reading test this year, compared with 68.4 percent of Maryland students overall.
"I think there was really a need for an alternative for high school for Baltimore residents," said Mary Beth Lennon, the new school's director of communication.When Foley ambled into the school's administrative building one day last week, wearing practical black round-toed shoes and thin-rimmed glasses, he was hardly the picture of a superstar. But the parents meeting him at the office shook his hand vigorously and gushed shamelessly. "Here's the celebrity," said one.
They had reason to gush. In 2001, the number of Cristo Rey schools grew to two, then three and four and then suddenly ten in 2004. This past fall there were 12, all in urban areas, all solely for kids from the bottom rungs of the income scale. There were almost 3,000 students at Cristo Rey schools this past fall. The opening of the Baltimore school is part of an expansion this year to 19 schools that also includes one in Washington.
In urban areas where schools - public, private and charter - are often starved for funds, Foley seems to have hit on something special. How, in areas of overwhelming poverty, high levels of crime and sinking graduation rates, have these schools succeeded?
Foley attributes the model's success to the "mission-minded" people who staff the schools, as well as the small-group environment and rigorous academic and work program of the school.
Most uniquely, the work-study business model has allowed each of the high schools to be nearly self-sustaining. "The biggest benefactors are our students," said Foley. And it's true - the goal is that at each school, student wages will bring in 70 percent of the operating budget. The remainder comes from donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and student tuition, which ranges from $250 to $2,500, depending on a student's economic situation.
Has Cristo Rey discovered a feasible and sustainable way to provide a college-prep education for urban kids?
Private schools have traditionally been used as escapes in areas where public schools battle with poor student behavior, low test scores and budget issues. Private schools often offer smaller, more focused environments.
But the average freshman-year tuition at a Catholic school is $6,906, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. In Baltimore, tuition can cost thousands more, a steep price in a city with a median household income of $30,078, according to the 2000 census. For many parents, private school just isn't an option, even with scholarships.
As a result, declining enrollment has plagued urban Catholic schools because they are mostly tuition-driven.
"When you have escalating costs and when you have the only basic resource as tuition, you have the perennial problem of, 'How do you keep tuition down?' and at the same time, 'How do you reach the costs that it takes to educate a child?' " said Ronald Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools in Baltimore.
Since 2000, the city has lost four Catholic elementary schools and a high school. In other cities, the number of closings has been more dramatic. The 12 largest dioceses in urban areas (Baltimore is not included in this number), have seen an 18.5 percent decline in enrollment, compared with a 15 percent enrollment drop nationwide, according to the United States Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools 2006-2007, an annual school enrollment report.
"We want to maintain the presence of Catholic education in the city, but it must be delivered in a different way than years ago," Valenti toldThe Sun in 2005 when one of Baltimore's parish schools combined with two others. This is still the case, he said recently. "It's a continued Herculean task that you have to deal with."
Some Catholic schools have applied for public funding, said Dale McDonald, the director of public policy at the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington. Others have launched more aggressive fundraising efforts.
But so far there is "no one solution," for keeping tuition down and schools open, she said. Which is why Valenti praises Cristo Rey as a "classic" example of an innovative way make Catholic schools affordable for urban kids. Cristo Rey will raise the number of Catholic high schools in the city to 10, and will be the first to open in 30 years.
"When you look at innovative approaches to education you can provide a resource for the community as a whole," he said.
According to Foley, the work-study model has been successful at bringing in funds and keeping tuition low. In each district, businesses pay the equivalent of an entry-level salary, about $25,000 a year, for a team of four students that fills one full-time position.
In the 2005-2006 school year, the 10 schools in existence brought in $11,429,600 through students' work-study contracts. At the Cristo Rey high school that opened in the fall in Kansas City, Mo., all but one of the 32 businesses with student teams will continue with the program next year, said the school's president, Vickie Perkins. Some will take on a second or third for 2007-2008.
Students work five days a month, donning ties, skirts and button-down shirts for the office. "This is a chance to help develop kids and give them good work habits," said Sister Helen Amos, executive chair of the board of trustees at Mercy Health Services, which will employ a team this fall.
The scramble to get Cristo Rey student workers isn't just philanthropic. For businesses, it's a great deal. They get the equivalent of an entry-level worker without paying benefits.
This year, 28 Baltimore-area businesses and nonprofits will participate in the program.
Of course, some question whether this model could be replicated on a larger scale. Simply finding enough jobs to occupy all low-income students who wanted a private education would be daunting. McDonald praised Cristo Rey but said she didn't think the work-study model could work at the nation's more than 8,000 Catholic schools.
"Cristo Reys are only a small entity," she said. "They are not going to be the norm. ... There are certain things about this model that are built into smallness and it's difficult for schools to do some of the conversion."
There's also the question of whether students with little to no work experience can meet employers' demands. At the Kansas City school a number of students were fired from their jobs, said Perkins, with employers sometimes complaining that students lacked initiative or basic phone skills.
Foley said, however, that the response from businesses has been almost all positive.
"It's amazing," he said. "Fourteen-year-olds - working in the Sears building. It's an incredible blessing and we just fell into it."
A sustainable economic model is not the only element in Cristo Rey's formula.
Foley also credits the successes of Cristo Rey schools to a family environment and an intensive work and academic schedule.
"I felt comfortable at the school," said Liz Ramirez, a 14-year-old who will enter the Baltimore school in the fall. She participated in a Saturday tutoring program run this year by Cristo Rey. She watches health TV shows and hopes to work in a hospital next year.
"They treated us like family," said Tonia Briscoe, who will be sending her 14-year-old brother, Joseph, to the school. Since her mother died, she's been "cutting corners" and "robbing Peter to pay Paul" to send Joseph to private middle school, she said. "Cristo Rey is a blessing."
The school building on South Chester Street is located just west of Patterson Park in a residential neighborhood that is home for a growing Hispanic population. Cristo Rey will open there with about 120 students and plans to relocate to Mildred Monroe Elementary on Guilford Avenue as enrollment grows to 400 or 500.
Orange, pink and yellow flowers line one side of the gray stone building when it's approached from Eastern Avenue. The four-story building has a high-ceilinged gym, waxed linoleum floors and a view of the Inner Harbor from the library.
During Foley's visit this week, staff members spoke Spanish to a parent with limited English skills. The Rev. John Swope, the school's president, greeted staff as they came and went. His eyes practically leaped each time he said "academically prepared" and "morally grounded."
The school sets out a curriculum with an extended school day and a calendar that begins in early August and goes until June. Religious teaching is included, with a respect for a diversity of religions, Swope said. All students go through a three-week business boot camp before they begin at their jobs.
Foley said he has seen the work-study program infuse students with purpose. They learn how to answer phones, put on a tie, shake hands, be punctual and take on responsibility.
At Mercy Medical Centerstudents will work in nursing, human resources, the medical library and the central supply service. They will get exposure to caregivers, technicians, physical therapists and pharmacists and learn how to answer phones and take messages.
"The job is an incredible thing," Foley said. "We began it to pay the bills, and we didn't realize that it excites them about life."
But not all students are ready for the office or the school's course load. Cristo Rey's graduating class of 2006 - meaning students at all Cristo Rey schools - began as 305 freshmen. But 90 left along the way, transferring to other schools. Another eight dropped out without requesting their transcripts be sent to another school.
The Kansas City school started in Septemberwith 100 students and has lost 13. Some moved, as often happens in urban areas, but others couldn't handle the responsibilities of a job or the academic workload, said Perkins.
"They didn't want to work this hard," she said. Some "just weren't willing to do the things they needed to do discipline-wise or academically."
Cristo Rey specifies that it's designed to serve motivated students. Not all students are accepted to the school, and Cristo Rey examines transcripts and solicits counselor recommendations when considering applicants.
Not all agree that this type of private education is the best for Baltimore city as a whole. Critics argue that programs like Cristo Rey remove the most successful students from public schools, draining the public system of the positive influence of their most committed students and decreasing confidence in public schools. Others argue that help is really needed for those who aren't knocking on doors to get into an elite school.
Swope said he's committed to aggressive recruiting efforts. He visited middle schools - public, private and charter - in the poorest areas of the city to find a freshman class. "But that's not enough," he said. More is needed.
So far the school is getting a community response. A report on Univision, a local Spanish-speaking television station, got the word out to local Hispanics, said Lennon. She said she she came to work recently at 8:15 a.m. to find two parents waiting outside for information.
A staff of 26 has been hired, headed by Principal Tom Malone, a Canadian who has experience teaching in the Bronx. Seventy-five students are enrolled so far. Student desks are expected to arrive any day. Thirty laptops have been ordered and they will travel from class to class on a cart, said Malone."We're ready to hit the ground running."
Cristo Rey Students
What is Baltimore's Cristo Rey High School looking for in its freshman class?
All students come from families with low household income, typically less than $40,000 a year.
Location and age:
All students must live in Baltimore City and be at least 14 years old.
Students must be ready to work in a professional setting and disciplined enough for an intense academic program.
Students must submit a transcript from the sixth through eighth grades as well as a recommendation from a school counselor. There will be an extensive family interview process. Cristo Rey is looking for high grades, but most of all, "we are looking for students who are aware that they need help," said Mary Beth Lennon, the school's director of communications.