Education Funding

Foundations’ Gift to Help Expand ‘Cristo Rey’ Model

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 28, 2003 2 min read
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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced that it is joining with the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation to give $18.9 million over the next five years to help replicate a model of Roman Catholic secondary schooling for needy youths in urban areas.

The two foundations plan to help start 12 schools that model themselves after the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, a school started in 1996 in which 460 Hispanic students from low-income families work part time for local businesses to cover most of the cost of their schooling.

With the help of planning and start-up grants from the Cassin Foundation, three Cristo Rey high schools have already been founded in addition to the one in Chicago. Those schools are located in Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; and Portland, Ore. A fourth is scheduled to open in Denver this coming school year.

“This is an incredibly innovative model that serves our target population—disadvantaged kids who don’t have high-quality education options,” said Marie L. Groark, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation. She said that about 5 percent of the foundation’s education funding goes to Catholic or private schools. Ms. Groark noted that Melinda Gates, the wife of Microsoft mogul Bill Gates, attended a Catholic high school in Dallas.

The effort to replicate Cristo Rey schools is part of a $450 million initiative by the Seattle-based Gates Foundation to improve education for high school students by creating new small schools and converting large schools into smaller ones. The Gates grant will be implemented by the Cristo Rey Network, a nonprofit organization headed by Jeff Thielman, who is also the executive director of the Cassin Foundation, which has a motto of “transforming urban America one student at a time.”

Matter of Faith

Mr. Thielman said the Cassin Foundation has supported Catholic schools on the national level “out of our own faith as Catholics, and secondly because Catholic schools have worked.” B.J. Cassin, the foundation’s chairman, is Roman Catholic.

Mr. Thielman, who works from an office at Boston College in Newton, Mass., said the Cassin Foundation hopes to help reverse the trend of Catholic school closures in cities. (“Catholic School Closures on Increase,” May 21, 2003.)

As well as supporting the start-up of Cristo Rey schools, the Cassin Foundation has been paying for the expansion of a middle school model serving students from poor families that was started by Jesuits at the Nativity Mission Center school in New York City in 1971. Mr. Thielman said the foundation has spent about half of the $6 million it has pledged to that effort.

Michael J. Guerra, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association based in Washington, said that while many private donors and foundations help support Catholic schools on a local level, the Cassin Foundation and, now, the Gates Foundation are the only private foundations supporting Catholic primary or secondary schools on a national level.

He characterized the Gates contribution as “a breakthrough gift” for Catholic education. “We’re delighted to see the acknowledgment that our Catholic schools are serving low-income students,” he added.

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