New Catholic school blazes new trail

Print More

In September, Chicago got its first new Catholic high school in more than 30 years, and it’s like none other.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, housed in the shuttered St. Stephens Elementary School in Pilsen, is centered around college-prep courses, but it also teaches workplace skills, conducts some classes in two languages, stresses cooperative learning and employs what educators call block scheduling, or 80-minute classes.

“I would say that we may be similar in curriculum to other schools in that we’re preparing our students for college, but we’re different in our methodology,” says Sister Judy Murphy, the school’s principal. “For example, we’re teaching in English and Spanish, and we’ve espoused both languages as fundamental to the curriculum. We’re creating the curriculum as we go along.”

Cristo Rey also uses an innovative work-study program to make a Catholic education affordable for working parents from a neighborhood where the average household income is $22,500. Students work one full day a week at an office job, and their pay goes toward their $5,100 tuition.

“The Jesuits are looking at this in other schools in other cities,” says Preston Kendall, who runs the work-study program. “They want to try and copy it. We think this will be a model for urban education in America.”

“I think it will mean opening tremendous avenues of hope and possibility for many young people,” says Father John P. Foley, president of the new school. “The community, business people especially, are the ones that made us go ahead with it.”

In 1993, newly ordained Jesuit priest James G. Gartland was asked by his provincial, the Very Rev. Bradley M. Schaeffer of the Jesuit Provincial Office to move to Pilsen and begin to assess the educational needs of the Latino community.

Gartland spent a year talking to community leaders, parents, children and teachers. “It became clear quickly that the needs were enormous,” he recalls. “We found out that many of the students weren’t graduating. Our kids weren’t being educated, and the parents didn’t know what an educational system is, and they were terrified of the gangs in the area.”

Working class clients

Many of the families in the community are working-class immigrants from rural areas in Mexico who have little or no formal education.

The Pilsen Project, as it came to be called, wanted to take advantage of the community’s strong attachment to family and its grounding in the Spanish language and culture.

“We thought, let’s take something they already have and make them proficient at it,” Gartland says. The idea was to develop a curriculum that would enable students to speak, read and write in both English and Spanish.

But before the school could be developed, Gartland, Schaeffer and the Rev. Ted Munz, president of Loyola Academy in Wilmette, had to figure out how to finance it. “We knew we wanted strong discipline and we wanted academic excellence and we wanted to involve the parents, but now we needed to make it affordable,” Gartland recalls.

They turned to Rick Murray, an attorney and consultant, to come up with a plan. What Murray devised was a work-study program that relied on corporations to provide the bulk of the tuition in return for labor provided by the students.

“I tried to put this together where I thought it would be easy for Chicago businesses to participate in a meaningful way without a lot of administrative or high cost,” says Murray. “They are critical to make this work.”

Five students share a full-time position that pays a total of $18,000 but does not include benefits. The school receives $3,600 for each student, and families pay $1,500 per child. (A scholarship program has been set up for students who can’t afford the $1,500.)

Just as the school’s planners considered the needs and culture of the Pilsen-Little Village community, they also considered the needs and culture of the business community. For example, the employers were assured that they would be in charge of on-the-job discipline and could fire students as they would fire any other employee.

“As soon as we said that, it seemed to make a difference with the businesses,” Murray says. “That’s part of what we want to teach. All we’re asking is for the opportunity to let the kids work.”

Technically, the students are part-time, contract employees of the school’s work-study program, a structure adopted to minimize administrative work for the outside partners. The work-study program manages placements and tends to the paperwork, including income tax withholding and insurance.

Twenty-four companies signed on, but only 17 were needed. They include Aon Corp., Ameritech, the Tribune Company, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, law firms, the Latino Institute, the Mexican Fine Arts Museum and others. Most of the businesses are in the Loop; two are in the suburbs.

The bootstrap idea of students working to pay for their education had great appeal for many executives at the companies.

“We all started out in the mail room or at an entry-level position,” Murray notes. “It’s no different for most of the CEOs in Chicago. They worked hard and worked their way up.”

Most of the work that students perform is clerical: filing documents, making copies, entering data into computers and answering phones.

“It’s fun,” says Clara Pichardo, 16, a sophomore. “I feel like an adult.” Pichardo works for the human resources department of the Chicago Tribune in Tribune Tower. “I like it because it helps me with my English,” she adds.

Clara does copying, filing and computer data entry. Her family moved to Chicago two years ago from Mexico City. Her English already is vastly improved, and she communicates with ease and only a trace of an accent. Clara wants to go to college and become a high school teacher in English and Spanish.

The jobs provide the students with more than tuition; they also give students an opportunity to learn and practice workplace skills, to interact with college-educated professionals and to explore careers. And they promote positive self-esteem, says Gartland.

“We knew we wanted to do education that would foster self-esteem qualities,” he says. “Not only will the work-study program help pay for their tuition, it will also give them an experience that will form them.”

Small school

In its first year, Cristo Rey enrolled just 90 students—the total dropped to 85 the second semester. All are sophomores and seniors, and most are from nearby Benito Juarez High School. The school was very selective in deciding whom to admit. Interviews were conducted with potential students and parents to determine interest, commitment and enthusiasm for learning. Less emphasis was placed on grades, says Sister Murphy.

Eventually, Cristo Rey plans to grow into a four-year high school with 500 to 600 students, says Murphy. “We’ve already had inquiries from close to 300 people, 200 of them for the freshman class.”

The ratio of students to adults is small, too, with one full-time teacher for every 9 to 10 students.

The classes are language arts (English and Spanish), math, science, history, religion, art, physical education and life skills, e.g. savings accounts and income taxes. However, during the first month of school the focus was on how students should comport themselves in a business environment. They attended workshops on such topics as conflict management, professional demeanor, office equipment and corporate organization, and they engaged in motivational exercises and skills development.

“We orient the students immediately toward working and the work place and being responsible citizens and responsible employees,” says Father Foley.

Cristo Rey’s designers adopted a dual-language program because they feel it is necessary for reaching and tapping the potential of students in the predominantly Latino neighborhood.

Unlike the transitional bilingual education program that is standard in the Chicago public schools, dual language seeks to make students fluent in two languages.

“The whole purpose of bilingual education is transitional to English from Spanish, to an English classroom,” notes Beth Scully, Cristo Rey’s curriculum coordinator. “The problem with bilingual education is that many children end up stuck on that bridge and never become proficient in either English or Spanish.

“With dual language, the purpose is to achieve literacy in both languages to the greatest extent possible, so there would never be an appropriate time to let go of the mother language,” she says. “We see it as a gift not to be wasted.”

Adds Murphy: “The research that’s been done currently around the country shows that students’ cognitive development is aided if they continue to develop their mother tongue, in addition to learning English. It also helps their mastery of English to learn their first language.”

Domitila Gonzalez-Prus, who teaches Spanish at Cristo Rey, notes that fluency in two languages can be an asset when looking for a job. “If you have all the other qualities an employer is looking for and you speak a second language, they’re going to hire you,” she maintains.

Cristo Rey wants all its teachers to be bilingual but, so far, it has had to compromise, says Murphy. Three of its nine teachers are native speakers of Spanish, and the others are learning.

With students working one day a week—on any given day, a fifth of the student body is off campus—Cristo Rey’s school day is unusual, too. Classes run from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and are followed by two hours of activities. Courses are taught in 80-minute periods, with language arts running yearlong and other courses alternating between semesters. For example, a student might take science, history and life skills one semester and math, religion and art the next.

Although the classes are long, the kids are adjusting to the new hours.

“You get a lot done,” says Ruben Hernandez, 17, a sophomore. “It’s a long time to be concentrating on one subject, but it’s all right. You learn more.” Hernandez works in the human resources department of a Loop law firm.

Teachers have adjustments to make, as well.”The key is to be [willing] to change,” says James Wall, who teaches English. “You realize that it was nice in the planning stage but this is how it really works.”

Wall team teaches with Gonzalez-Prus; he teaches a concept in English, and she teaches it in Spanish. In one project, students wrote short stories using both languages in their stories.

“There’s a lot more emphasis on cooperative learning,” says Wall. “You structure the course so there’s a 10-15 minute lecture, and then you break them up into groups, and they’re sent to perform various tasks.”

Says Murphy: “We discovered that there’s a need to plan differently for a longer block of time. We structured it so that Spanish and English would be team taught, and on some days teachers break that [down] so that it becomes much more like the traditional class.”

He adds, “We aspire to grow into using the 80-minute class.”