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Catholic high school network focusing on underserved targets Phoenix for expansion

Fourteen-year-olds Sankun Bargolo, Julio Hernandez and Stephen Ezequiel listen to the assistant principal of Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Silver Spring, Md., in this 2007 file photo. Seven new Cristo Rey schools opened that year. Talks of a Phoenix campus are underway. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Cristo Rey Network’s Corporate Work Study Program was one of six award recipients during the World Innovation Summit for Education Nov. 14 in Qatar. Now they’re headed to Phoenix.

Cristo Rey’s model, launched in 1996, gives low-income students access to high-quality instruction and support both in the classroom and in the workplace so that they’re college-ready at graduation. Last year’s 7,400 students at 25 college preparatory high schools worked entry-level positions five-days per month at white collar companies. Their wages underwrote $37 million toward tuition costs.

“We have a model that we feel is sustainable,” Robert Birdsell, president of Cristo Rey Network, told The Catholic Sun months ahead of his Nov. 7-9 visit to the Valley. “You can have a Catholic school serving poor kids and have very little fundraising.”

He pointed out Arizona’s added bonus of the tuition tax credit which allows individuals to make a no-cost donation to school tuition organizations. San Miguel High School in Tucson brings in $10 million per year through the tax credit, Birdsell said.

“When you take that money and combine it with our corporate work study program, we bring in an average of $7,000 per student. We almost have a fully-funded school,” Birdsell said.

He stressed that the work experience is paramount, however. Birdsell and employers see a 90 percent retention rate and can easily speak of transformed students.

They get a three-and-a-half-week training on workplace basics — including lessons on tying a tie and working a copy machine — before starting work at places like Bank of America, Georgetown University and in the Willis Tower.

Cristo Rey Network staff wasn’t sure what kind of reaction to expect from employers when they launched the Work Study Program. They anticipated having to “hide under their desks” the first day students were in the field. Well, the phones did ring rather quickly.

“Sure enough, they said, ‘Send us more of these people. They’re great,’” Birdsell recalled.

Job placements are often at law firms and financial services offices. Other top placements include places of higher education and the field of insurance, medicine, hospitals and foundations.

There are currently 32 students at a predominantly Jewish law firm. In spite of the faith differences, the firm sees huge value in the partnership.

Birdsell hopes the same rings true for business leaders of all faiths in the Phoenix area. He already met with key people at the Walton Foundation.

His Arizona trip earlier this month also put him in touch with Brophy and Xavier. Local school leaders won’t see a potential Cristo Rey school as a threat, he said.

“If a student can go to another Catholic school, they’re not allowed to go to our school,” Birdsell said.

Jesuit Father Edward Reese, president of Brophy College Preparatory, applauded Cristo Rey Network’s efforts across the country so far. The idea of drawing students from low-income and failing schools into the Catholic system can prepare them for stiffer academic challenges, he said. That’s essentially what Brophy’s Loyola Academy, which opened last year, is doing with junior high students. Some seventh-graders are already taking Honors Algebra I at Brophy.

Cristo Rey students academically and financially are not able to go to other schools, Birdsell said. Some 42 percent of neighbors near Tucson’s San Miguel High School earn less than $25,000 per year. Half of adults in the area never finished high school.

Birdsell said Cristo Rey students at Cristo Rey schools like San Miguel sometimes enroll two or three grade levels behind.

“We’re there to serve the students who are in failing schools,” he said.

A religious order or diocese sponsors each school. Masses, retreats and service work round out the educational and work study aspects.

By graduation, the students perform at least at grade level and achieve a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Some 88 percent of graduates enrolled in college since 2008. More than 40 are at Georgetown University, 35 at College of the Holy Cross and others at Loyola Marymount.

“There’s certainly a need for more Catholic schools. This is a big place. We can certainly use them,” Fr. Reese said.

There could be a larger forum to discuss a possible Phoenix expansion early next year. Four new Cristo Rey schools are scheduled to open for the 2013-14 school year.

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