Catholic education begins with the early Church which took Jesus as its exemplar.  Not only was he a rabbi, a person of the book and the beneficiary of Jewish study and scholarship but also the divine teacher, “the truth,” and “the wisdom of God” (Jn 14:7; 1 Cor 1:24; Matt 28:19-20). He gave the disciples the mandate “to go and teach all nations.” Here the Church exercises its divine mandate and mission “which entitles it to precedence over all other agencies regarding final decisions about educational means and ends” (V.P. Lannie, “Catholic Education II, New Catholic Encyclopedia 5:168). With the family and state, the Church shares in the responsibility for educating youth. Thus, the continuous striving for academic excellence integrated with social responsibility and fidelity to Catholic faith. 

Boys and Girls Town:  Saving Our Youth and Healing Their Families  
In 1921, the Irish-born Father Edward Flanagan founded Boys Town for abandoned and abused boys.  His motto has become famous: “There is no such thing as a bad boy, only a bad environment, bad training, bad example, and bad thinking.” At first, only a few boys needed rescuing and rehabilitation.  The numbers only increased.  Father Flanagan had to find funds to build an entire town of homeless boys, later including homeless girls.

The statistics about homeless youth are appalling. 80% of Boys and Girls Town children come from single-parent homes. Over half of all the girls and 30% of the boys have been sexually abused. One in five has considered suicide. 63% have mental health problems severe enough to be diagnosable.

Education and Spiritual Development

At the main campus near Omaha, Nebraska, there is a fully-accredited non-sectarian school with teachers for the middle and high school levels where the boys and girls are educated.  The goal is to have them grow into responsible and productive members of society. The high school is organized around a seven-period day without study halls, and academics, social skills, and employable skills are emphasized.  Boys and Girls Town has its own sports team, band, choir, student newspaper, and a self-governing body with its own mayor. Father Flanagan respected the faith traditions of every child, adding that “every boy must learn to pray.  How he prays is up to him.”

The cost of maintaining a child at Boys and Girls Town is close to $50,000 a year.  Of that, two-thirds is privately supported through donations and a trust fund established by Father Flanagan in 1941.  The remainder is funded by social services, juvenile justice, and educational agencies.  On the Omaha campus, there are 400-600 youth. The boys and girls live in family-style homes with four to six of them assigned to families, mothers and fathers with their own children. These adults serve as counselors to the residents. The transformation at Boys and Girls Town is nothing short of amazing. Almost 83% of its residents graduate from high school or earn a GED, and administrators continue to monitor the progress of the alumni after graduation.


Today, Boys and Girls Town has more than eleven locations nationwide and growing in number.  The mission at Omaha has flourished but has assumed a new and improved approach. Instead of removing young people from their troubled families, counselors visit them in their own environments and try to heal the family unit. About 30,000 of these young people receive this attention as do their families. 

At-risk children and the family are given outside support to overcome their circumstances, and through healing, find their way to the future and realize their potential.  Since the start of Boys Town in 1921, almost 1.6 million boys and girls have been influenced by the vision of Father Flanagan. This mission has succeeded in transforming the lives of young people. 

Spencer Tracy and Boys Town

In 1938, the film, Boys Town, became one of Hollywood’s biggest hits even though it lacked sensational effects.  It was nominated for five Oscars, and Spencer Tracy received one for best actor. In his acceptance speech, he praised the founder of Boys Town, Father Edward Flanagan.  Though Tracy kept his Oscar, he had one made for the priest, with the inscription on it: “To Father Flanagan, whose great humanity, kindly simplicity, and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble effort. Spencer Tracy.”

Honoring Father Flanagan

In 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a four-cent Great American series postage stamp honoring Father Flanagan. The cause for his canonization has begun with the title, “Servant of God,” the first of three titles bestowed before canonization as a Catholic saint.  This great humanitarian ‘rescued boys from the dark streets of this country and gave them hope for their future.’

Cristo Rey Schools (Christ the King):  Educating Our Youth and Their Families    

In the mid-nineties, Cristo Rey, a Catholic college-prep school serving low-income students, took shape as the creation of Father John O. Foley, S.J. and a few other Jesuits in Chicago.  

The scriptural text that inspired the Cristo Rey vision was that from Acts 9:6:  “[Paul], get up and go into the city where you will be told what you must do.”  Like the Apostle, the Jesuits went into the streets, but of Chicago’s Pilsen district and asked the residents how they (the Jesuits) could best respond to the unserved needs of the Mexican and Latino immigrants living there.  The response was unanimous.  They wanted their children to attend a college-prep high school that would educate them for a better future.  In August 1996, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago was born.  

Every Cristo Rey school is permeated with Catholic faith and values with biblical and Catholic social teaching forming the centerpiece of the celebration of Mass, retreat experiences, and community service. It is Christ the King who leads the way.

Genius of Cristo Rey: High School and Business at Fourteen

The parents of Cristo Rey schools cannot afford large tuition bills, but herein lies the genius of the Cristo Rey plan.  The schools function as a vast work-study agency in which clusters of five students each rotate working as an intern one day a week at a job in a business like Pfizer and American Express. Part-time salaries cover a portion of each student’s tuition. Parents pay approximately $1,000 a year to defray some of cost of that tuition.  Here they are, young people, beginning to build their resumes at age fourteen.  Business ‘boot camp’ calls for wearing suitable attire, learning telephone etiquette and skills, team work, precision, accountability, technical skills, and how to conduct oneself in business. The other four days of the week, students are immersed in a rigorous course of academic studies.

In this way, study and work are integrated, and tuition is covered. Students gain exposure to the corporate world while receiving a first-class education in a thoroughly Catholic environment. Of the 9,000 students enrolled in Cristo Rey schools across the country, 40% of them are not Catholic and need not become Catholic.  

Enterprising Sponsors

In addition to the Jesuits, many religious groups endorse and run Cristo Rey schools. Each is independently owned, each is explicitly Catholic in mission, and each has received official Church approbation. From the endorsing group to the president, principal, and teachers, down to the youngest freshman,  a common four-fold mission is actively  promoted:  (1) commitment to the Catholic character of the school, a character that permeates the curriculum, (2) admitting only students from lower income families, (3) using a college-prep curriculum,  (4) work-study.  

Currently, there are approximately twenty-eight schools in the Cristo Rey Network, but new schools are in the planning.  Empty buildings are being bought up and  renovated for the 400-600 students who will study there and from there go to business one day a week as an intern.  The Cristo Rey Network based in Chicago ascertains that all the schools are adhering to the four-fold mission.  
Course of Studies

Students in Cristo Rey schools have a longer school day and year. What course of studies do the students follow? Across the United States, the college-prep, academic curriculum is rigorous experience. Most students take four years each of English, mathematics, religion, and science, three years each of a foreign language and history, two plus years in health and physical education, at least one year of the arts, and computer science.  Cristo Rey schools are transforming urban education through Catholic values through Catholic values, rigorous study and student-internships.  By 2001, Cristo Rey’s education model became known to educators and community leaders throughout the country.  As of 2014, twenty-eight Cristo Rey schools have enrolled 9,000 low-income students, and every year, every student is accepted into college.

The primary long-range goal of Cristo Rey schools is to have their students enter and graduate from college.  Eight goals emerge from Cristo Rey schools:

1.    Academic excellence and lifelong learning are essential.  As important keys, they unlock doors to a meaningful future for the students.

2.    Importance of well-trained teachers equipped to engage their students.  As leaders, they must be committed to the Catholic vision.

3.    Character is developed largely through faith experiences. 

4.    All-in. Every person is committed to the program.

5.    Belief in every student that he or she has the ability to enter and graduate from college.  This attitude prompts students to believe in themselves.

6.    The importance of community with students and parents.

7.    Importance of data.  Test scores are used by the schools themselves to improve their programs and by outside groups to assess the impact of Cristo Rey education.

8.    Cristo Rey pursues a culture of high expectations of everyone. (Adapted from Megan Sweas: “How a Jesuit Network Is Transforming Urban Education”).


Catholic education gives human persons a vision of the transcendent as well as an appreciation of their lives on earth. Thus, they can realize their destiny in the life to come.  A Catholic education that attempts to achieve less than this is an incomplete Catholic education and short-changes those students enrolled in a particular Catholic school.

The Latin poet Virgil saw most deeply how we are wrapped in history’s tools, how quickly we as individuals pass, how necessary it is to build institutions to live on.  Boys and Girls Town and the Cristo Rey schools are two cherished institutions of the American Catholic Church.  They are leading young men and women to fulfill their potential as God’s masterpieces, God’s works of art.