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Work-for-Tuition Proposal Floated in Chicago

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Roman Catholic educators in Chicago may have found a new way to help parents pay for school: Make students work for it.

The Archdiocese of Chicago is considering starting a Catholic high school for low-income children that would give students a tuition break for working outside jobs. If the plan is approved by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago, the school could open by next September.

If such a school is started, it will be an oddity among all private schools, not just Catholic schools, according to Brother Donald Houde, the director of administrative affairs for the archdiocese's education office. While many schools have formed partnerships with local businesses, the Chicago school would rely on students' jobs with such companies to help cover tuition.

Under the proposal that the Chicago province of the Jesuit religious order submitted to Cardinal Bernardin, the high school would be open to students in the city's Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, whose residents are predominantly poor and Mexican-American.

Students would attend the school four days a week and 11 months a year. One day a week, students would work at a corporation or other business in the metropolitan area, the proposal says.

Businesses that took part would each finance one student position at an annual salary of $18,000. Five students--each working one day of the week--would fill the position.

A family would be expected to pay about $1,000 to $1,500 a year toward its child's tuition, and about $3,600 would come from the student's job. The school would raise any remaining money needed. The estimated per-pupil cost would be $5,500 to $6,000.

The Rev. Tom Widner, a spokesman for the Jesuits, said that Chicago-area corporations already have promised 30 jobs--enough to pay for 150 students in the school's first year. Father Widner said the school eventually would be able to serve more than 500 students.

The archbishop has yet to approve the plan, but Father Widner said the Jesuit group is optimistic.

A Different Partnership

However, there are concerns such as whether parents would be able to afford their portion of tuition, he said. And some parents might not want their children to participate in such a program.

But, Father Widner said, such concerns should be weighed against benefits for the students. "These jobs will take them into the greater Chicago metropolitan area and help assimilate them into the larger business community and the cultural community," he said.

The school would aim to attract students who had dropped out of other schools. Within the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, there are about 10,000 children of high school age and a high dropout rate, Father Widner said. "There's a great need in this particular area."

And as Catholic schools in cities across the country struggle to maintain their enrollments, such an arrangement would help families who want a parochial school education for their children but cannot afford the whole cost.

"Partnerships with businesses in most instances have meant volunteers from big companies coming in and doing tutoring, or big companies helping schools procure materials or supplying some of their products to schools," Brother Houde said. "This sounds different to me, and it sounds attractive."

The proposal is not the first one to see the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods as a testing ground.

Lawmakers in Illinois targeted the areas last spring for a controversial school-voucher program. Although the plan never materialized, it would have given parents tuition grants to send their children to the private or parochial school of their choice. (See Education Week, May 24, 1995.)

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