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Cristo Rey: High Schools That Work for Disadvantaged Students
By Mary Jo Dangel
By 2006, 16 schools based on this Chicago work-study model are expected to be in operation around the country.


Corporate Internship Works
Catholic, Jesuit Environment
A Leap of Faith
Networking Leads to Additional Schools
Community Support Required
College and Beyond
Cristo Rey's Network of Schools

Photo courtesy of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School/Steve Donisch

In the 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.

In 1996, 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 of Chicago.

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 of $30,041.)

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 Kendall.

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 program.

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 those months.

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 their work.”

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 a year.

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 and English.

“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 knows 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 ( 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 the country.

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 ( 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 student performance.”

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.”         


The Cristo Rey Network links member schools to each other and assists schools in the start-up phase by helping with planning the work-study program, budgeting, scheduling and other details.

All schools are Catholic in mission while serving economically disadvantaged students of various faiths and cultures.

Each school has a college-preparatory curriculum and all students participate in a work-study program. Network schools must be financially sound. Revenue from tuition and work-study programs should cover more than 90 percent of operating expenses.

The Network’s aim is to open 16 schools by 2006, but not all feasibility studies have been approved. Feasibility studies are now under way in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Kansas City, Missouri. Following is a list of schools in the Cristo Rey Network, along with the year they opened (or plan to open).

Chicago, Illinois: Cristo Rey Jesuit High School (1996)

Portland, Oregon: De LaSalle North Catholic High School (2001)

Austin, Texas: Juan Diego Catholic High School (2002)

Los Angeles, California: Verbum Dei High School (2002)

Denver, Colorado: Arrupe Jesuit High School (2003)

Cambridge, Massachusetts: North Cambridge Catholic High School (fall 2004)

Cleveland, Ohio: St. Martin de Porres High School (2004)

Lawrence, Massachusetts: Notre Dame High School (2004)

Harlem, New York: Cristo Rey New York High School (2004)

Tucson, Arizona: San Miguel High School (2004)

Waukegan, Illinois: Martin de Porres High School (2004)

To arrange a visit at one of the schools, contact Kristy Blackmore (phone: 773-890-6885, e-mail: If you are interested in starting a Cristo Rey model school, contact Jeff Thielman (phone: 617-244-8512, e-mail:


Mary Jo Dangel is assistant managing editor of this publication. Her oldest grandchild is a first-grader at the same Catholic school the author attended.

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