Mercy in Action: Cristo Rey (Christ the King) Schools
Last week, Pope Francis spoke with the students at Cristo Rey Chicago via satellite. What are the Cristo Rey schools?
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 Going to 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 interns 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 the 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 convert to Catholicism.
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 interns. The Cristo Rey Network based in Chicago ascertains that all the schools are adhering to the four-fold mission.
Course of Studies and Transforming Urban Education
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. 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. Many of these college graduates are asked to give back to Cristo Rey, by teaching in the very schools that lifted them out of poverty.
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:
I. Academic excellence and lifelong learning are essential. As important keys, they unlock doors to a meaningful future for the students.
II. Importance of well-trained teachers equipped to engage their students. As leaders, they must be committed to the Catholic vision.
III. Character is developed largely through faith experiences.
IV. All-in. Every person is committed to the program.
V. 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.
VI. The importance of community-students together with parents.
VII. 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.
VIII. 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 beings 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.
Cristo Rey schools have fast become a cherished institution of the American Catholic Church. They are leading young men and women to fulfill their potential as God's works of art.
The inherent generosity of Americans and of American Catholics will not escape the Pope's recognition when he visits us next week.