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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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How High School Work-Study Fosters Civic Purpose

By Guest Blogger — August 31, 2018 4 min read

Wrapping up this round of guest bloggers is Brendan Bell, my uber-talented research assistant. Before coming to AEI, Brendan served in the Alliance for Catholic Education and taught US history and government at Cristo Rey High School. He’ll be writing about some of the debates surrounding social studies curriculum and teaching methods, drawing on his experiences working in Catholic education.

Every Tuesday, my 3rd-period government students wouldn’t show up to class. They weren’t skipping, though. In fact, they were doing something crucial to their own education, and Cristo Rey High School’s mission: working.

In my last post, I offered a few teaching methods that can help students engage in civil discourse inside the classroom, but today I will share how I saw one network of schools prepare students to work toward the common good outside the formal classroom setting.

Cristo Rey High School Sacramento is part of the Cristo Rey network of schools. The network is unique by most standards in creating what political scientists call “social capital,” which has been defined by Robert Putnam as the “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.”

The work of Cristo Rey has been well-documented, but here’s just a bit of background for those unfamiliar: It’s a network of 35 Catholic schools that’s been around since 1996, with the mission to empower “thousands of students from underserved, low-income communities to develop their minds and hearts to become lifelong contributors to society.”

This is possible through an innovative work-study model, where students work about five days per month instead of going to class. The funding from students’ employers goes directly to the school, and often for about 60 percent of school budgets, while fundraising covers 30 percent, and paid tuition covers the final ten percent.

While I’d like to primarily speak about what I saw firsthand at Cristo Rey High School Sacramento, there are certainly a handful of common experiences across the network. Depending on the school’s regional economy, students work in law firms, state houses, businesses, medical centers, and nonprofits. But regardless of the precise job, there is an exposure to the world that is rare for 15- to 18-year-old students to otherwise receive. I’d posit that they are exposed to an aspect of civics education that is difficult to achieve inside of the classroom—a firsthand, practical dive into the networking and soft skills that can jumpstart an interest in further community engagement.

Many of the practical benefits of Cristo Rey have been well-documented (like the schools’ ability to feasibly provide a high-quality education to students, regardless of their economic circumstances), but perhaps a less-noted dimension of Cristo Rey’s model is how the student work experience has done much to bolster students’ social ties within their communities, and provide them with a greater sense of civic purpose.

For one, students have the opportunity to bring experiences from the professional world into the classroom. While not every work-study experience is applicable to every class, I saw plenty of opportunities—especially in my government and economics courses—to incorporate examples and problems right from students’ work encounters. For instance, a handful of students worked in the California State Assembly, while others worked for public and private organizations focused on issues like air quality or public transportation. These out-of-class experiences crystallized the type of work that gets done in both the public and private sectors. It gave classwork a deeper meaning, and helped students see how academic skills would serve a larger purpose, beyond the formal classroom setting.

What’s more, this all works in the other direction. That is, work-study sponsors and companies become deeply involved in Cristo Rey. After all, in most schools, especially Catholic schools, community involvement comes directly from parents, or philanthropists and benefactors. Cristo Rey is unique in that it requires a long-term and serious investment from organizations (taking on students to work as part of their organization or team). This requires buy-in and “skin in the game” from sponsor companies and employers. I saw the investment that work-study sponsors showed—whether it was through attending sporting events or academic awards ceremonies—as another way of strengthening these ties.

To be sure, Cristo Rey schools are not without their challenges, and educators must answer a handful of ever-present questions. For instance, as a teacher, how do you successfully integrate the experiences in workplaces with those in classrooms? And, of course, there is obviously the concern that this takes away from class time. Cristo Rey schools have longer academic days and years, in many cases, but that doesn’t entirely mitigate the challenge.

Much has already been written about the Cristo Rey network, so what’s next for those tracking these schools from afar? One avenue is to measure other aspects of the “Cristo Rey experience” and get a better sense for how these schools affect students’ dispositions, and all that comes with them (like a greater sense of civic purpose). To my knowledge, this has not yet been studied extensively in the context of Cristo Rey. Of course, much has already been written about Catholic schools and their role in promoting civic engagement and sustaining communities. However, there is much less work on this fairly new—and constantly growing—network of innovative schools.

I don’t know what outcomes we’d find. But if I were a betting man, I’d say that even beyond the academic work Cristo Rey schools do, something special is taking place across the country.

Brendan Bell

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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