A Working Experiment

Roman Catholic School Tries Out Jobs-for-Tuition Program in Chicago Neighborhood

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Right now, all the delays don't bother Sister Judith Murphy. Not the fact that her students have been in school for nearly two months and they're still not in their new building. Not that they have to hold classes in the corners of a roller rink and gymnasium across the street from the school, which is being renovated. Not that their audio-visual room consists of five computers sitting on what looks like a bar in a nook off the gym, and not that her religion classes are being held in a concession stand under a sign that says: "Enjoy Coke; Good with food." None of that bothers her right now.

On this last Monday morning in October, she's worried about graffiti.

Occasional obscenities lobbed at teachers on the walls of suburban school restrooms rarely set off such alarms, but here in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, where wearing the wrong color on the wrong street corner can result in a threat or worse, graffiti is closely associated with gangs. In addition to the bathroom graffiti, a fight broke out at the school for the first time the previous week when one young man accused another of making eyes at his girlfriend between the first and second class periods.

Students's fear of being threatened or recruited by gangs is one of the reasons many of the 95 students attending Sister Murphy's Cristo Rey Jesuit High School fled other schools in Chicago. Besides the safe haven they found at Cristo Rey, the students also sought the chance to be pioneers in a model for Roman Catholic education, in which they pay for most of their own schooling. The work-study program, only one of the school's more novel features, requires students to work one full day each week and attend classes the remaining four. Employers pay the school directly, and tuition is kept to $1,500 a year--less than half that of other Chicago-area Catholic high schools.

At the new school, which serves just grades 10 and 11, many of Cristo Rey's students have had to adapt to higher expectations for homework, behavior, and academic progress. And after the previous week's events, Sister Murphy, a Benedictine nun and veteran Chicago Catholic educator, thinks it's time to remind the students that they've got to behave differently to stay at Cristo Rey.

The chiding comes at the 8 a.m. schoolwide assembly in the gym that also serves as three of Cristo Rey's classrooms. Peeling off their outside jackets as they come indoors, most of the students reveal white shirts and dark shoes. The boys wear dress pants, and most of the girls have on skirts.

The students sit on folding metal chairs as Sister Murphy stands at a portable podium just inside the foul line under a basketball hoop. In conversation, she often flashes a street-smart smile that says nothing gets past her. But she isn't smiling now. When she talks, her O's are just long enough to prove she's a native Chicagoan, and she can raise her voice without yelling.

"I want to say as strongly as I can that we want this to be a safe place," she tells the students. "Even if that means having some people not here. I spoke with a couple of you last week and said perhaps a few of you made a mistake and some of you have chosen to come here and decided not to work."

Then she adds, "I will be thinking on that insight in the next few days."

She reiterates some of Cristo Rey's rules, spelled out in a list of rights and responsibilities each student signed at the beginning of the year: no team jackets (pick any sports team, and the students can name a Chicago gang that uses their colors); show up to school dressed as you would for a white-collar job (boys who forget their ties earn 30 minutes of after- school detention, and students who wear the wrong shoes may be sent home); and, inspired by last week's incidents, no more bathroom breaks during the 80-minute classes.

"It is an inconvenience, but some of you have caused that," Sister Murphy says.

Her firmness is welcomed by many of the students, who want reassurance that Cristo Rey is going to be different. Most of these students aren't problem children forced to attend a strict Catholic school because their parents think it will whip them into shape. At 16, 15, or even 14 years old, they can articulate their fears about what would face them in their neighborhoods' overcrowded public schools: huge classes, less attention, high dropout rates, and greater pressure from gangs.

Michele Martinez, a 10th grader who's one of eight children in her family, applauds Sister Murphy's message. The student, who aspires to be an accountant, says she's learned she has to be careful about whom she hangs out with. Even at an all-girls Catholic school she once attended, she was taunted and eventually threatened by gangs.

"I'm the kind of person who doesn't have a lot of friends," she says at noontime, when the students eat the lunches they bring at the same tables they sit at for class. Rather than cringe at what might seem like a strict environment, Ms. Martinez feels secure at Cristo Rey.

"It's kind of uncomfortable to have class in these two rooms," she says. "But the teachers here are great. They're really friends with you."

She says she's glad Sister Murphy laid down the law. "We're trying to have something different here, and some people are trying to make it the same."


To say Cristo Rey is different is a vast understatement. The school, whose name means "Christ the King" in Spanish, is a dozen experiments at once, all born from one mission laid out by the local Jesuit priests: to serve the overwhelmingly Hispanic, working-class Pilsen neighborhood and its youths. The need to provide a rigorous high school education to the children of low-income families bred Cristo Rey's work-study program. Many Pilsen families couldn't otherwise afford to send their children to a private school.

Each morning after the schoolwide assembly and prayer, one-fifth of Cristo Rey's students--a different group each day--commute in a school bus to Chicago's Magnificent Mile. There, they join the city's business ranks in the advertising, law, and accounting firms that fill the top floors of Michigan Avenue's skyscrapers. When they're not at work, it's still not business as usual for the students at Cristo Rey. The school day starts at 8 a.m. and goes until 4:30 p.m. (and eventually will go to 6:30); summer vacation will be just one month long. Although the students learn in both English and Spanish, Cristo Rey's teachers correct anyone who calls it a bilingual program. Public schools in Illinois that call themselves bilingual generally teach students in Spanish only for as long as it takes to wean them from their native language, Sister Murphy says. Cristo Rey's approach, in contrast, is a dual-language program. Students will learn in English and Spanish, improving their skills in both languages through their graduation. So while they're reading from lower-level English books, the students can study in Spanish the works of Colombian Nobel Prize- winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, an author whose literature many instructors consider college-level material.

For the school's eight teachers and five administrators, Cristo Rey was a chance to dream a school into existence--to build one from the ground up, however they thought best. For the students, it's meant an even greater opportunity.

For sophomore Robert Mantano, who used to avoid the area's public schools with a two-hour commute each way by bus, elevated train, and foot to a suburban private school, Cristo Rey is a chance to go to school a short walk from his house. It's also a chance to study in Spanish, a class his previous school wouldn't let him take. "They said I knew how to read it and write it, which I don't. I knew Spanish, but not the correct way."

For junior Maria Elena Cleto, who also attended school outside her family's neighborhood last year, it's a chance to work once a week on the bustling floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, where she runs telephone orders to the "pits," with hundreds of thousands of dollars riding on her ability to find the right trader in a matter of seconds. Asked about the public high school in her neighborhood, she says, "It ain't worth it. It's overcrowded, and those kids don't want to learn."

And for sophomore Andres Munoz, who once felt so uncomfortable in Chicago's schools that he moved back to Mexico to live with his grandparents, Cristo Rey was a chance to come home to his mother and father. He still fondly remembers his Mexican village of Puento Grande, where the greatest violence he'd experience was on the excursions he made with friends to hunt rabbits and birds with slingshots. "You can walk around and not have to look around you," he says of Puento Grande. If Cristo Rey doesn't work out, he says he'd like to go back to Mexico.

Just south of one of Chicago's largest stockyards, Pilsen has been a port of entry for recent immigrants back to the 19th century, when newcomers from what is now the Czech Republic named the area after a town in their homeland. Mexicans first became a majority of Pilsen's residents in the 1960s, and today the neighborhood's culture is predominantly Hispanic. Latinos make up nearly 90 percent of the 45,654 residents, and the atmosphere is a world away from Chicago's downtown, its skyline barely visible above Pilsen's mostly two- and three-story detached houses and apartment buildings. While vendors on Michigan Avenue peddle soft pretzels and hot dogs, their counterparts in Pilsen are selling elotes--corn on the cob rolled in butter, mayonnaise, grated cheese, and chili pepper.

Pilsen has a serious gang problem, but the neighborhood isn't the cliché of the desperate, inner city war zone. Though an ongoing turf battle between the Ambrose and Party People Nation gangs have claimed young lives recently, the area also supports a vibrant artist community. City scenes along with Aztec- and Catholic-themed murals cover the walls by the stockyards, the elevated-train station, and some neighborhood churches. Pilsen produced novelist Sandra Cisneros, whose impressions of growing up there formed the stories in her book The House on Mango Street, a work now taught in Cristo Rey's English classes. Each day, busloads of tourists arrive at Pilsen's Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, the country's largest Mexican arts museum and one of the institutions providing part-time jobs to Cristo Rey's students.

But Pilsen's median family income is only about $22,000, and many of the families include seven or more children. Half the neighborhood's residents are foreign born, and nearly 70 percent of them never graduated from high school. Although few of Cristo Rey's students come from single-parent households, often both parents must work to support their large families. In short, Pilsen has too many children with too little to do, says the Rev. Jim Gartland, the pastor of a neighborhood Catholic church. And with fewer parks than many of Chicago's other neighborhoods, its young people often head for the streets for recreation.

Street gangs are such a part of the neighborhood's landscape that they no longer faze students like Mr. Mantano, who says he knows which people to avoid.

"If you don't mess with them, they won't mess with you," says Mr. Mantano, who lives a few blocks from Cristo Rey. "They know my parents are strict. A lot of them graduated [elementary school] with me, or played baseball with me or they were my friends. But they grew up on the street, and I grew up with my parents."

Despite Mr. Mantano's matter-of-fact dismissals, the specter of street gangs is impossible to keep out of neighborhood youngsters' lives. In one corner of the Cristo Rey gym, a student recently posted a computer- generated sign for a friend, "In Loving Memory of Erik, RIP," with images of doves on either side of the printout. The boy's memory is still fresh with his friends, though he was killed on a Pilsen street corner more than a year ago.

For Pilsen's parents, most of whom immigrated from rural Mexico, the fact that gangs may be pulling on their children is a terrifying prospect.

"What happens daily here is that mothers will bring their adolescent children here and say, 'Father, talk to him, I don't understand him.' And it's a despair that they're losing their children," Father Gartland says.

No Handouts

The Very Rev. Bradley M. Schaeffer, who as the Chicago Jesuit provincial oversees local members of the order, began looking for a way to best meet the neighborhood's needs in the early 1990s. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago whose death last month was mourned by Catholics across the globe, gave the Jesuits a Pilsen parish, St. Procopius, as a base and Father Gartland, who is bilingual, was sent there to find out what was needed most. After a year of conversations at corner stores and in community meetings, the answer was obvious.

Father Gartland discovered that about 10,000 school-age children lived in Pilsen and neighboring Little Village, and just two public high schools serve the area. About 40 percent of the area's population is under age 18. The only public high school in Pilsen, Benito Juarez, now serves about twice as many students as it was built for and must run programs in shifts to fit everyone in, Father Gartland says.

While Cristo Rey's students are less forgiving, Pilsen's adults have greater sympathy for the challenges in the area's public schools, where they say the well-meaning teachers can't handle so many children.

"It opened overcrowded and got more so," Raul Ramundo, who graduated from Juarez in 1983, says of his alma mater. "The high school has had like a 50 percent dropout rate for years." Mr. Ramundo now runs the Resurrection Project, a neighborhood nonprofit group that's helped build 76 subsidized homes in Pilsen. "You almost have to drop out 50 percent of the students just to continue at that level of overcrowdedness," he says.

Providing educational opportunities is something Jesuits have a lot of experience with. Though he didn't set out to be an educator, Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the religious order formally known as the Society of Jesus, wound up creating schools for Catholic education. Jesuit schools have long held a reputation for having particularly rigorous programs, even among other Roman Catholic schools.

The Chicago Jesuits tapped Father John Foley to make the Cristo Rey School real and be the school president. A charismatic Chicago native who spent the better part of 34 years helping run Jesuit schools in Peru, Father Foley has a knack for remaining optimistic in the face of daunting challenges. While in Peru, he helped start the Cristo Rey School for the Working Child in the city of Tacna (the name of the school, a favorite among Hispanic Catholics, coincidentally became the same for his current project). The School for the Working Child provides a host of services-- from tutoring to medical care--to Peruvian children who live on the streets. In Pilsen, as in Peru, resourcefulness proved to be the Jesuits' best asset.

"The problem was, how do you provide a private education in a neighborhood where people don't have the money?" Father Foley says.

To answer this puzzle--one faced by inner city Catholic schools from Philadelphia to Los Angeles--the founders of Cristo Rey conceived what they saw as a win-win solution. What if the students worked one day a week for the bulk of their tuition, not in fast-food restaurants or convenience stores, but in professions that would give them a leg up on their careers? The experience would give them job skills, and the students would know that they were paying for their own education. The school could make up for the time students spent at work by running from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., including a mandatory study hall at the end of the day, and by limiting summer vacation to one month.

But would Chicago's businesses be willing to take a group of teenagers into their corporate offices? At a rate of $18,000 for each five students they hire, the companies essentially would have to pay more than $9 an hour for these new recruits.

As local newspapers and television stations began reporting plans for the project two years ago, businesses came out of the woodwork. Sixteen Chicago businesses now "sponsor" Cristo Rey students, including Arthur Andersen, the Bozell World Wide advertising firm, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and Refco, a private company providing services on the floor of the Board of Trade.

The school also got a boost from Preston Kendall, an insurance-company executive who helped Father Foley build a school in the Peruvian Andes for six weeks while a student at Chicago's Loyola Academy high school, where Mr. Kendall graduated in 1980. Mr. Kendall quit his job with the insurance agency and went to work for the nonexistent school, helping to build its work-study program. Mr. Kendall could tap into two important networks: the Chicago business community and the alumni of Loyola and other Jesuit schools.

"The sponsors have really latched on to this message of the students working for their own education," Mr. Kendall says. "It's this whole idea of not having a handout for the students."

The funds from the sponsors, along with the $1,500 intuition each family pays, cover about half of Cristo Rey's operating budget of $1.2 million, Mr. Kendall says. The rest comes from the Jesuit province in Chicago and other contributions.

Most of the sponsoring businesses each take five students, with one working 9 to 5 each day. They try to give significant responsibilities to the students, many of whom had never been downtown before. Those at the law firm of O'Keefe Ashenden Lyons & Ward received the same passes that full-time clerks use to pull records from the Richard J. Daley Center.

"I really believe that unless a kid is hungry and has to do the work and education on his own, he's not going to do as well in life," J. Michael Heaton, a lawyer at O'Keefe, says.

'They've Been Heroic'

Cristo Rey wasn't born without other complications. Recruiting students for a school that didn't yet exist wasn't easy, and because Cristo Rey has such a price advantage, the school agreed not to take transfers from other area Catholic schools, although it does take students expelled from other parochial programs. The organizers also decided not to take freshmen or seniors the first year. Next year's senior class will only include those who make it through this year's junior one.

Nonetheless, interest in Cristo Rey carried the school's brochures as far away as Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela, says Rosy Santiago, the school's recruiter. Parents who years ago saw their children go back to Latin America to attend school sent them newspaper articles about the project. Not all of Cristo Rey's students are from Pilsen or nearby Little Village. Some commute to the school from farther out, though many of those are from families that once lived in the neighborhood.

"The kids may not all be from this area, but our school should be a benefit to the people of this neighborhood," Father Foley says. The school started out looking for 150 students, but ended up with just under 100.

After recruiting, the biggest challenge has been the building. Cristo Rey decided to locate itself at St. Stephen's, a Catholic elementary school in Pilsen that closed at the end of the past school year. Converting the building to a state-of-the-art high school wired with several computers in each classroom has taken more effort than the school's founders realized. The students didn't have their classes there until mid-November; instead, they had about two months of classes sitting on folding chairs while their teachers competed for attention with the unpredictable fans of the gym and roller rink's heating system. Before the move, few of the students knew exactly what was waiting for them across the street, where $275,000 in renovations were transforming the school they'd soon move into. In Cristo Rey's permanent quarters, students will have many of their classes around conference tables, sitting in padded wooden chairs reminiscent of those in business offices. Sister Murphy wants the professional aspect of the school to permeate the day even when the students aren't at work.

The delays forced the school to put off the first day of classes for a month. Cristo Rey used the time by holding three weeks of job-skills training, during which United Airlines' corporate offices donated staff members to instruct the students on such issues as conflict resolution and sexual harassment. They learned how to dress for office work, to give an earnest handshake, and look adults in the eye when speaking to them.

While learning how to work in an adult's world, they're also learning how to hand in homework on time, show up for class prepared, and study for hours at a time.

"So many of them come from what you'd have to call dysfunctional education systems," English teacher Jim Wall says.

Some of the students, however, are ready to learn and came to Cristo Rey for a chance to be recognized. Junior Gustavo Rodriguez, for instance, is a resident of nearby Little Village and is something of a neighborhood leader at age 17. He leads a youth choir at his church and is helping a group of younger Pilsen children paint a new mural by the railroad tracks. With his mustache and barrel chest, he looks older than his age, and some teachers quickly dubbed him "The Mayor" of Cristo Rey. He says he's long wanted to attend a Catholic high school, but the expense would have been too much for his parents, who are raising six children.

"Benito Juarez is an excellent school," he says of the neighborhood's public school. "But you can't learn with 30 kids in the classroom. From the first time I heard about Cristo Rey two years ago, I wanted to come."

Sister Murphy hopes some of the students who do still have behavioral problems will be inspired to work harder after they get into the new building.

"I think they've got a year, or two, or three of accumulated bad habits," Sister Murphy says. "A lot may have to do with not being over here in the new building. So all that said, they've been pretty heroic with all this. They've sat on those hard seats for 80 minutes at a time."

What amazes her most, though, is how little the students have complained. That doesn't surprise Ishmael Humos, a counselor with the United Stand Family Center, which holds small private group therapy sessions with all of Cristo Rey's students each week.

"A lot of things that my generation took for granted are something new to these kids--like you ask them what it is to go to school, and they say, 'to dodge bullets,'" Mr. Humos says. "At the beginning, they complained about this makeshift environment, but after they talked about it, they realized, 'God, school is not walls or furniture, or other things we thought school was.'"

Simply put, Cristo Rey is a safe haven, where adults pay attention to students and care how well they do.

"Cristo Rey is a phenomenon in itself. When you do counseling with drug addicts or suicidal students, the hardest thing is to create some future insight or hope in such a dysfunctional environment," Mr. Humos says. " With Cristo Rey, it's the fact that they have a job. It's given them something to concentrate on for the future. That would take sessions and sessions for me to make for them."

The school's lack of walls also hasn't done much to discourage the school's eight teachers, who came to Cristo Rey with missionary zeal. Many are bilingual, and most are graduates of and former teachers in Chicago's Catholic school system.

"It was the opportunity to be at the beginning of a school, and be the entire department," says social studies teacher Mike Heidkamp, who taught for two years at Loyola Academy and worked with Habitat for Humanity during a visit to Peru. "I could teach my entire life and not have that opportunity."

Without advertising, the school drew more than 100 applications from teachers wanting to be a part of the project.

"They're all people with a vocation," Father Foley says of his staff. "They're not doing it for the money. They're doing it for the prospect of what they can do for education. I mean, can you imagine the luxury of being able to sit around a table and say, 'Let's begin a school. OK, what do we do?' Who wouldn't want to do that who wasn't really into it?"

One of the first hires was Sister Murphy, who in about 20 years at Chicago's St. Scholastica High School had been a Spanish teacher, a theology teacher, a dean of students, a principal, and a president. She majored in Spanish in college and, before returning to teach at St. Scholastica, her alma mater, she worked for five years at a Catholic school in Canon, Colo., where many of her students were Hispanic.

"She's a pro in the Chicago education circles," Father Foley says, "She's very well-known here, and it'd be tough to have someone with higher credentials than hers."

Hiring her faculty was the easy part. What took more time, and is still ongoing, was designing the school's curriculum. Sister Murphy and her new staff spent months reading the latest research on the length of class periods, bilingual education, and school-to-work programs.

"I feel like I could have gotten a Ph.D. with all I learned from last February to June," she says. "It was really exciting to just read the latest stuff and then find people who were doing it."

The Catholic Conundrum

The project started drawing attention long before the first day of class. First lady Hillary Clinton attended the school's opening day, a coup scored by Father Foley by yelling the Georgetown University fight chant as he and President Clinton, a graduate of that Jesuit institution, passed each other jogging along Lake Michigan one morning. Father Foley ran home and drafted a letter to the White House saying, essentially, "I'm the one who yelled 'Hoya Saxa!' in Chicago, why don't you visit our new school?"

One of the groups watching Cristo Rey the closest is the Catholic school community, which faces an enormous challenge in the nation's inner cities.

Established in the 19th and early 20th centuries in large part to help immigrants in urban areas retain their religious faith, Catholic schools have struggled to maintain their inner city presence in the past three decades while their congregations have moved to the suburbs. The rising cost of running a school has left many inner city parishes financially strapped and unable to serve their students without raising tuition.

"That's the conundrum of Catholic schools right now," Sister Murphy says. " Do you just serve the elite?"

Though they started out seeking a solution to one neighborhood's problems, Cristo Rey's founders may have designed a life raft that could help rescue urban Catholic schools elsewhere.

"Catholic schools have a good track record in urban education, but the challenge is finding ways to help people take advantage of it, and that's what this school is doing," says Leonard DeFiore, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Cristo Rey's model offers a way to provide the children of low-income families with a rigorous education while keeping tuition down, and, as a byproduct, the students can hope to graduate well-prepared for work and college.

"Creative models are the only way Catholic schools are going to survive in the inner city; they're closing left and right," Father Gartland says.

For now, though, getting through the first year is enough of a job for the teachers, staff, and students at Cristo Rey. Sister Murphy says she still doesn't know how many students will make it. Two have been expelled since school started, and she guesses she'll see a few more depart before July.

"I hope I'm not too optimistic, but I think we're seeing 75 or 80 percent of the kids who really are with us," she says.

Writing Stories

The week that began with an admonishment ends with one too. The students were told they could have a party during study hall Friday if they brought in permission slips signed by their parents--the first party of the year. But fewer than 30 of the students brought them in, so Sister Murphy announces that the party has been canceled.

"About two weeks ago somebody asked me if you all could have a party, and maybe that's when I did something wrong," she tells them. "Is there something I should have done to see if you all wanted to do that?"

After some fidgeting, a few hands go up. Some complain they're being treated like children. They wanted a real party, one at night when they could invite friends from outside the school.

"I'm not sure we're all ready for the responsibility of taking in another 100 people," Sister Murphy says. "Remember, we're all new at this."

By the end of the day, she will have reached a compromise. Those who did bring in a permission slip can relax in a corner of the skating rink during study hall, play compact discs, and socialize.

Fresh from the morning assembly, the students of Jim Wall's first class settle in for 80 minutes of English. A part-time playwright and former teacher at Chicago's St. Ignatius High School, Mr. Wall sits on the folding table that props his blackboard against the gym's cinder block wall.

Taped to the blackboard is a piece of student artwork, a penciled cross drawn for the Day of the Dead, the Mexican version of Halloween, when the souls of loved ones who have passed away are said to return. Around the cross, students have penned in "offerings" in green, pink, purple, and brown ink: "For my beloved and missed father"; "For my departed family and friends"; and "RIP: Puppet."

For the past couple of weeks, Mr. Wall has been coaching the students through a creative-writing assignment, first having them do short character sketches and now putting those characters into a narrative.

"They're not used to this at all--being in a position of being able to make a choice as to what a story is going to be," he says before the class begins. "I assume the first nine years of their education, they were in situations where they were just given a story and told to read it."

To get this morning's students thinking about a narrative, he uses an example from yesterday's class, in which a 10th grade student is writing about a girl forced to make a major decision about her life. In the still- nascent story, the girl attends a party held by gang members, is raped, and becomes pregnant. She later joins another gang, but has second thoughts as she realizes the responsibility she'll soon bear. Mr. Wall says the student came up with a compelling image to show the choice that's being made. In the delivery room, the protagonist holds her newborn in one arm, while a tattoo on her other arm bears her gang's name.

"So what does she ask the doctor?" Mr. Wall presses his students. One answers, "Can you remove tattoos?"

"Right. 'Can you remove tattoos?' Boom. That's the last line. You don't need anything else," he tells them. "So when you tell a story you have to show your audience--you can't tell your audience that they're making this decision."

His coaching ends after about 20 minutes, and the dozen students sitting around four folding tables spread out across the gym, and set to work writing their own stories as best they can.

Vol. 16, Issue 15, Page 24, 26-28

Published in Print: December 11, 1996, as A Working Experiment
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