In Putting Education to Work: How Cristo Rey High Schools are Transforming Urban Education, journalist Megan Sweas details her research of the Cristo Rey Network, a group of Catholic, college-preparatory schools in urban communities that provide students with professional job opportunities to fund their education.
According to Sweas, “Although each student has his or her own unique story, Cristo Rey schools enroll students who are from low-income families, are behind in school, and are uncertain about their future. Four years later, students graduate confident and college ready. The schools boast an exceptional college acceptance rate for seniors, and the vast majority of graduates matriculate at two- or four-year institutions within a year of high school, at rates equal to those of the highest-income Americans.”
Detroit Cristo Rey High School has seen a 100 percent graduation rate since 2012. We spent some time at the school to learn how its model has made the school an urban education success story in our own neighborhood.
Detroit is a city that has stories to tell. Within those stories are the missions of people, organizations, schools, and businesses that want to create opportunity. For Detroit Cristo Rey High School, creating opportunity means providing a college preparatory education for students who cannot afford the cost of private school education while also providing these students with the unique opportunity to work professional jobs at partnering companies and organizations.
Detroit Cristo Rey is part of a network of 30 Catholic, college preparatory schools that service urban students across the country. It is an organization built upon a model in which families pay a small amount to send their teenagers to the school and partnerships with local businesses cover 60% of tuition cost. This model will generate over two million dollars toward the costs of operating Detroit Cristo Rey and has done so by hiring students to come work at the companies for one day each week.
Mike Khoury, the Detroit school’s president, speaks of the motivating and beneficial factor that this model has on the kids: “Students may not have a lot of exposure to professional jobs through their home life, but through this program, they interact with professional people daily. They see the kinds of jobs a college education can provide.” Khoury was introduced to the school in 2008 when his daughter worked as a volunteer at the school in Chicago. “The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to get involved,” he says. When the opportunity arose for him in Detroit, he made a career shift and took the position immediately.
Detroit Cristo Rey students work for over seventy different companies as part of the job partnership program, including GM and FCA. Much of what attracts companies to the program is learned by word of mouth, and according to Khoury, “Students are the best sales tool. They understand the importance of being respectful and being a good worker, and people see that when they come to visit our school.” While it may seem like hard sell to hire a person who is still in high school to work at a corporation, companies see that it works. In fact, Khoury notes that companies tell him that hiring students “is the best thing that they can do for employee engagement. The employees see how hard the kids work and become invested in their success.” This investment extends beyond graduation for the students who work there; after all, they have networked and built relationships with people within the companies. Businesses enjoy building relationships and connections with the students who work for them and tell them to come back and apply post-college.
In addition to working with large businesses, Detroit Cristo Rey partners with the community in a variety of ways to support its students. Boys Hope Girls Hope and Mercy Education Project are both community partners. The University of Detroit Mercy Dental School also helps provide dental care to students, and many local grocery stores and restaurants donate and provide food for the families of students. Yet the partnership with businesses and community organizations is only a part of the success of the schools. Detroit Cristo Rey also has a solid college preparatory curriculum that requires four years of math, four years of English, four years of theology, and three years of Latin. In addition to strong core subjects, a dedicated and passionate staff further creates an environment that sets students up for success in college. “Teachers are committed to the success of our students, and students comment about how teachers care about them,” says Khoury. It is another level of advocacy that students receive to have both teachers and employers invested in them and in their futures.
Detroit Cristo Rey is certainly set apart from other schools by its unique model, but Khoury considers the high expectations the school sets for students to be important in implementing a program that will increase graduation rates. “Expect a lot from kids, wherever they are,” he says. “Working a professional job at 15 or 16 years old can be a lot of responsibility for a high school student, but it gives them a unique sense of ownership over their school and that shows up in their work.”
Preparation for college and the working world continues to become critical for young people today, but Detroit Cristo Rey’s optimism and belief that students will meet the expectations set for them, is a unique kind of advocacy. One that will help students’ college and post-graduation success. The kind of success, of course, that is important for Detroit and beyond.