courtesy of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School/Steve Donisch
computer lab, Bernice Medina, a senior who has applied to
four colleges, is assisted by Dorelia Rivera, a former teacher
who is now pursuing a higher degree.
the Jesuits opened a college-prep, work-study, dual-language, Catholic
high school in one of the most densely populated, undereducated
and economically challenged areas of Chicago. This innovative school
is being copied in other cities, thanks to $18.9 million in grants
from the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation and the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation.
By 2006, the Cristo Rey Network’s goal is to have 16
high schools operating around the country. All are patterned after
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in the Pilsen/Little Village community
The school is the result of research and conversations
initiated by the Jesuits with the residents of this neighborhood,
where most people are Mexican-American and many adults work in retail
or factories. The area had a tremendously high dropout rate for
high school, explains Preston Kendall, formerly the Chicago school’s
executive vice president and now the Cristo Rey Network’s vice president
of administration and work studies.
The need for a college-prep high school was obvious,
but so was the fact that families could not afford a private school.
(The average family of five in the community has a median income
St. Anthony Messenger interviewed Kendall at
the school two days before the feast of Christ the King (Cristo
Rey), when a new school wing would be dedicated. Cristo Rey
is a popular religious image of Christ in the Latino culture, explains
This coed-student campus, located on the grounds of
the closed St. Stephen Elementary School, includes a 23-classroom
building separated by a small plaza from a gymnasium/media center/dining
room. The state-of-the-art facility has two computer labs, three
science labs, two art studios and a library. The property was donated
by the Archdiocese of Chicago after the parish closed.
It’s practically impossible not to notice the school
when driving down Cermak Road: The immaculate complex is a rare
sign of new life in a working-class neighborhood of mostly small,
older homes and shops displaying signs in Spanish.
Preston Kendall recalls his first day on the job in
January 1996: It was the same day a press conference confirmed that
the school would open. He had been working in the business world
for about 12 years and was looking for a career change. When he
heard that Father John Foley was planning a new school, Kendall
contacted the Jesuit and was hired to organize the school’s work-study
The two had stayed in touch after meeting years earlier
when Father Foley was a missionary in Peru and Kendall was there
on a high school service project sponsored by Loyola Academy, located
in Wilmette, Illinois.
Corporate Internship Works
For the corporate internship program, the school
needed to provide students with jobs that were allowed under
child labor laws and wanted jobs that reinforced the college-prep
mission of the school. Entry-level clerical positions were the solution.
“The odds of running into people with college degrees
in an office are extremely high,” explains Kendall. “Close to 90
percent of our students are the first in their families to graduate
from high school and about 97 percent are the first in their families
to go to college.”
All Cristo Rey students must work: Their earnings pay
about 74 percent of their tuition. Academic schedules are structured
so they don’t miss class. Four students share each office position,
with each student working five weekdays a month at such businesses
as law offices, banks, marketing firms and hospitals. Students who
continue their jobs during the summer can keep what they earn during
The corporate internship program, which acts as a temporary
employment agency, transports students to and from work at over
90 sponsoring companies in the Chicago area. The company pays the
program $25,000 gross income for each position. That amount, when
divided by four, pays $6,250 toward each student’s tuition.
Over 40 percent of students qualify for financial assistance
to help pay part of the balance of tuition ($2,400). “Everyone pays
something,” explains Kendall. Assistance is based purely on need
in this school where 91 percent of students qualify for federally-funded
free or reduced-cost lunches.
The work-study program involves a scheduling challenge
because “every day 25 percent of the students are not in school,”
explains Kendall. “They’re building a wonderful résumé, tremendous
work skills and have great experiences.” They become dependable
team players and, hopefully, learn that, if they can combine work
with high school, they can do the same in college.
Ricardo Mena, a senior whose brother is a freshman,
says, “The people here really want to see you succeed.” Born in
Chicago to Mexican immigrants, Ricardo selected Cristo Rey “because
I wanted to have a good education.” In addition, he liked “the idea
of going downtown and working at a corporate job. I work at Madison
Dearborn Partners, an investment company.” Ricardo hopes to attend
the nearby University of Illinois (Circle Campus) and major in business.
Tim Sullivan is managing director at Madison Dearborn
Partners, Inc., and a board member at Cristo Rey. He says the company
has been a sponsor of the corporate internship program from the
beginning. “It allows us to be responsible as good corporate citizens,”
he says. “The students do a wonderful and necessary job in our office....They
always have a smile on their faces, yet they are very serious about
Catholic, Jesuit Environment
New students attend a three-week training session
before school begins, Preston Kendall explains. This includes an
introduction to computers, spreadsheets, word processing and other
basic office skills. Office etiquette is also covered, as are team
building and performance reviews, which the school does four times
Dressing for success is covered in one of the workshops.
The strict dress code is the same for work and school, what Kendall
describes as “business semiformal.”
Even though the school is only about five miles from
Chicago’s downtown loop, “Many students had never seen Lake Michigan,”
says Kendall. Thus, they are taught to read maps and find their
way around downtown. Some experience walking through revolving doors
and riding elevators for the first time.
Isela Juárez, a senior who lives near the school, describes
her experience at Cristo Rey: “What surprised me most was the whole
idea of going downtown and working at a big company.” She hopes
to continue working at Merrill Lynch BFS, an investment firm, while
attending college. “My first choice is Loyola, but I’m undecided
what I want to study.”
Preston Kendall says that, although the school performs
random drug tests on students, “I can’t tell you how rare it is
that a student will come up positive.” When problems with students
do arise, the school works with them and their parents. The number
of students who transfer to another school is very low: “We don’t
ask many students to leave.”
Most faculty and staff are bilingual at this dual-language
school, explains Kendall. In addition to classes required by the
state, Cristo Rey requires students to take four years of Spanish.
Although students speak Spanish at home, many are not skilled in
spelling, grammar or reading. In addition, another class is taught
in Spanish each year, which includes discussion and homework in
Spanish. By the time students graduate, they are fluent in Spanish
“We don’t require students to tell us their religion
in order to come here,” says Kendall. Since the community is Latino,
many students “consider themselves Catholic but they may not be
very well churched.”
The school requires four years of religion classes. In addition,
there are school Masses, retreats and service projects. “The way
we approach education is an outgrowth of the basic spirituality
of the Jesuits,” says Kendall.
Not all the schools in the Cristo Rey Network
are Jesuit but all are Catholic. And they all share the same standards.
Other congregations that operate Network schools include the De
La Salle Christian Brothers, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary,
the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the Sisters of the Holy Child
Jesus, the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, the Congregation of the
Resurrection and the Clerics of St. Viator.
A Leap of Faith
When students were asked to enroll in 1996 for
the initial year of the new school, “We didn’t even have an address,”
explains Kendall. “Talk about a leap of faith!” That first year,
Cristo Rey had 80 students. This year, the school has nearly 500
students and a waiting list.
The admission process is a five-week program: “We don’t
have an admissions test,” explains Preston Kendall. What they do
have is interviews and activities on a series of Saturdays for potential
students and their parents.
Applicants produce two letters of recommendation from
former teachers. “The type of student we want is the student who
is self-motivated to work hard, whether it’s at academics or at
work,” says Kendall.
Some applicants drop out during the process. When it’s
over, “We know we want you and you want us,” says Kendall. “That’s
when we really have to make the tough decisions” regarding which
students will be admitted.
During this process, parents are told they need to “make
a commitment at home to help their student be successful at school,”
explains Kendall. Parents must provide students with the time and
appropriate home environment in which to study. In addition, parents
are expected to pick up report cards at school. “We do that on Sunday
because most people have Sundays off.”
Many parents are immigrants challenged by children who
are learning a new language and culture. Thus, a new evening program
for parents addresses issues that adolescents face and shows parents
how they can “stay involved in their children’s lives,” he explains.
Attending Cristo Rey was like coming home for Cheryl
Flores, a senior whose parents are Mexican immigrants. Cheryl and
her older sister attended St. Stephen Elementary School on the same
property before the parish closed.
“Before I came to Cristo Rey, I wanted to major in business,”
she says. But she changed her mind after working at an insurance
company her freshman year. She now works at Katten Muchin Zavis
Rosenman, a law firm, and has been accepted at Northeastern University.
Cheryl likes the fact that Cristo Rey is a small school “and everybody
Father John Foley, the school’s president, says, “These
young people have discovered that there is a future and the beautiful
talents, both personally and culturally, that God has given them
are their most valuable assets for a brighter tomorrow....They are
excited by what our friends and supporters have provided for them
and proud that they themselves are essentially making their own
dreams come true.”
Networking Leads to Additional Schools
The Cristo Rey Network (www.cristoreynetwork.org)
was established in other cities to duplicate the Chicago school.
Jeff Thielman, vice president for development and new initiatives
of the Network, explained the expansion in a telephone interview.
Like Preston Kendall, Jeff Thielman worked with Father John Foley
in Peru. “I was a Jesuit International Volunteer in Peru from 1985
to 1989,” he says. “I started a program for streetchildren called
the Cristo Rey Center for the Working Child.”
When he returned to the United States, Thielman went
to law school and practiced law briefly, then worked in the insurance
industry while continuing to raise funds for the Peruvian center
he founded. During one fund-raising effort at a parish in California,
Thielman met Catholic philanthropist B. J. Cassin, who made “a generous
contribution and said to stay in touch.”
Thielman also stayed in touch with Father Foley, who
offered him the position of development director at the new school
in Chicago. Thielman says, “We raised about $18 million in the three
years I was in Chicago.” Thielman urged Cassin to visit the school,
“hoping we would get him interested in our capital campaign.”
Instead, Cassin “was interested in replicating the model,” explains
Thielman. “B. J. went to Catholic schools” and was frustrated by
the high number that were closing in inner-city communities around
B. J. Cassin’s visit to Cristo Rey in Chicago influenced the venture
capitalist to establish the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation
in 2001 to help organize faith-based middle and high schools in
economically challenged communities throughout the United States.
“He hired me to run the Foundation,” explains Thielman, the executive
director. Thielman returned to the East Coast to get married and
works for the Cristo Rey Network and the Cassin Educational Initiative
Foundation out of an office at his alma mater, Boston College.
About a year ago, Thielman received an unexpected offer from Tom
Vander Ark, executive director for education of the Bill and Melinda
Gates Foundation (www.gatesfoundation.org).
The Gates Foundation wanted to join Cassin’s efforts in copying
the school. “Cristo Rey is a typical Catholic high school,” Vander
Ark explained in the October 27, 2003, issue of America,
a Jesuit magazine. “It offers a college-preparatory curriculum taught
by dedicated teachers in a positive environment. Like all good high
schools, it has a set of clear goals and high expectations concerning
The combined $18.9 million Cassin and Gates grant is
restricted to feasibility studies and start-up costs for new schools.
Gates has pledged a total of $9.9 million over five years. And Cassin’s
contribution will total about $12 million over a seven-year period,
including donations already made.
Community Support Required
The feasibility study is “a very thorough process”
that determines if “there is a lot of financial and philanthropic
support in the community,” Thielman says.
“We want to make sure there are kids and parents who
want to attend this kind of school, and we want to make sure there
are low-income people who will be served by it.” Some feasibility
studies have resulted in decisions not to open schools.
Each new school receives about $1 million for start-up
costs “over the first three to four years,” explains Thielman. That
covers about one third of expenses. “The rest has to be raised locally.”
Once a school reaches full enrollment, over 90 percent of operating
costs should be covered by tuition and the work-study program.
Preston Kendall says, “We never thought it would replicate
so quickly....I think we have something that is sustainable.” He
will help guide the new schools “through the first year and beyond,”
with “planning, timing, scheduling and hiring.”
Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles is the first attempt
to convert an existing school to the Cristo Rey model, explains
Kendall. “The archdiocese brought in the Jesuits because Verbum
Dei was about to close.”
Enrollment at the all-male high school in the Watts
area had dwindled to 142, says The Tidings, the archdiocesan
newspaper. This year’s freshman class has 114 students and the school
has a waiting list. Senior Jo’Juan Johnson says, “There is a strong
sense of community and connection at Verbum Dei.”
College and Beyond
Last year, 100 percent of the graduates from Cristo Rey in Chicago
were accepted into college. “We’re really excited!” beams Preston
Kendall. He recalls one student who was offered a “full ride” at
both Brown University in Rhode Island and the closer-to-home University
of Chicago. She had a difficult time making a decision but is now
enrolled at Brown.
He explains that most students attend nearby colleges because Latinos
are very family-oriented. The University of Notre Dame seemed like
“the other side of the world” to some families, until parents were
shown that public transportation was available.
“There is an incredible shortage of college students
who are Latino,” he explains. And because schools strive for diverse
student populations, the chances are very high that Latinos will
be offered financial assistance.
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago hasn’t been
in operation long enough for many of its alums to graduate from
college. One of the first, Gustavo Rodríguez, graduated from Xavier
University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is now on the faculty of Juan
Diego High School in Austin, Texas, which is a Cristo Rey Network
school. “Isn’t that amazing!” exclaims Kendall with pride.
Kendall justifiably boasts that another alum, Carolina De Vries,
who earned a teaching degree from DePaul University in Chicago,
is now a math teacher at a public junior high school not far from
Cristo Rey. When Father Foley visited the school, Carolina excitedly
told him that she was working toward her master’s degree. Then she
informed him that, after she earned her degree, she wanted his job.
“If that’s a taste of what’s to come,” says Kendall,
“I hope I’m blessed to live long enough to see that.”