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Catholic Grant: Continuing to push the limits of innovation, Chicago's Cristo Rey Jesuit High School has won a federal "empowerment zone" grant to help subsidize its unusual work-study program.

The program allows the Roman Catholic school's 264 students to work one day a week at one of some three dozen sponsoring businesses and organizations, which in turn pay for the bulk of their tuition.

While giving students experience working for such employers as law firms and advertising agencies, the arrangement also puts a private school education within the reach of many families in the predominantly Hispanic, low-income Pilsen neighborhood served by the school. ("A Working Experiment," 12/11/96.)

Although the school's per-pupil cost runs more than $8,000, families pay just $1,900 a year out of their own pockets. That's less than half the average freshman tuition at Catholic high schools in the United States, according to the Washington-based National Catholic Educational Association.

City leaders in Chicago agreed that the school's work-study program merited public support when they approved Cristo Rey's application for $400,000 in empowerment-zone money last spring. Underwritten by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program jump-starts urban-renewal efforts by offering tax breaks, grants, and loans in distressed areas.

Pilsen sits within one of the three clusters that make up Chicago's empowerment zone. With the first of the funds being disbursed this fall, the money is helping to pay the work-study program's operating expenses.

Because the program operates as a nonprofit organization separate from the school, Chicago officials believe the arrangement avoids creating an unconstitutional entanglement between church and state. "Knowing what a wonderful thing it's doing for the city's children, it was well worth the hassle for the school and the city to work this out," said Rebecca Carroll, a spokeswoman for the Chicago planning department.

An editorial last month in the Chicago Sun-Times, however, said the arrangement could break new legal ground in determining how public funds can support a religious school. The newspaper said the grant should "face a court test to settle the constitutional issues it raises."

Although no legal challenge has been filed, the Catholic school has since received "one inquiry from an organization that is concerned with church and state issues," said Jack Crowe, Cristo Rey's lawyer.

But he said, "my legal opinion is that this passes constitutional muster."

--Jeff Archer

Vol. 18, Issue 11, Page 6

Published in Print: November 11, 1998, as Private Schools
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