The Cristo Rey Network has been globally recognized for its work on high school education, receiving a World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Award and the CLASSY Award for Educational Advancement. It was one of eight organizations selected to present at the United States Department of Education’s Rethink K-12 Education Summit. This network of Roman Catholic high schools, spanning 24 states, has drawn particular notice for its work-study program. Given pressing concerns about workforce readiness and educational access, I thought it timely to ask network President Elizabeth Goettl about this innovative work-study approach.
Rick: Can you tell us a bit about the Cristo Rey Network?
Elizabeth: The Cristo Rey Network is a national network of 38 Catholic high schools in 24 states, focused on college preparation and career readiness. We serve over 12,000 students annually, exclusively enrolled from families in the lowest-income quartile. Each school is locally owned and operated but supported by our national office. Besides providing our students with a college-preparatory education, we also equip them for the workforce by providing four years of professional work experience through our Corporate Work Study Program.
Rick: How did Cristo Rey get started?
Elizabeth: Twenty-five years ago, one school, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, was founded by the Jesuits in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. About five years into operation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation visited the school, witnessed its promise for every student to access an excellent college-preparatory education, and supported its replication.
Rick: Who goes to a Cristo Rey school?
Elizabeth: Cristo Rey schools enroll youth of all faiths and cultures, who are typically underrepresented at institutions that provide a quality secondary education. Our schools do not exclusively recruit academically high-performing students from the lowest-income quartile. Rather, they focus on increasing access for economically disadvantaged students who demonstrate strong potential for academic and workplace success. Through no fault of their own, our students have had inconsistent exposure to high-quality instruction K-8; therefore, Cristo Rey high schools provide consistent, high-quality learning that accelerates growth and achievement to ensure college readiness. Our students come from families who envision a brighter future for their children. On average, our families’ overall average household income is $39,000 for a family of four. Our students are culturally and linguistically diverse, identifying as 98 percent young men and women of color.
Rick: Cristo Rey has been widely recognized for your Corporate Work Study Program. Can you tell me more about the program?
Elizabeth: The Corporate Work Study Program enables students to gain four years of professional work experience as part of their education. Every school has a separately incorporated work-study program, with a full team to develop, place, and manage the program and the business relationships. Each student works, one day each week, for all four years of high school, in an entry-level position in a professional setting—at hospitals, financial institutions, law and engineering firms, and so on. Through the work-study program, students develop the competence, confidence, and aspiration to pursue their dream of college completion and professional opportunity. Students are able to form a professional network of mentors from their workplace supervisors and colleagues, one that remains with our students beyond high school.
Rick: What does work-study look like in practice?
Elizabeth: Four students job-share one full-time-equivalent position, rotating workdays. Students attend academic classes four longer days each week, and they go to work on the fifth day. In doing so, they do not “skip class”; we have structured an alternate schedule that makes this work. Student workers are employed in fields of accounting, communications, engineering, human resources, legal, medical, and tax services and perform a wide range of responsibilities on the job, such as data entry, Spanish-English translation services, IT support, and computer-based tasks. The school’s work-study program team pairs each student worker with a job that suits their current capabilities and interests. Depending on the business partner’s needs and the student’s job performance and areas of interest, our young professionals may work with the same business partner for all four years, or they may work with several partners over their high school experience.
Rick: How has the work-study program evolved?
Elizabeth: The work-study program was initially founded as a revenue generator to replace what would otherwise be expensive private school tuition so that low-income students could earn a portion of the cost of their private, Catholic education through their employment in the Corporate Work Study Program. The program has evolved into an integrated and essential element of our unique educational model. This integration of classroom learning and work-based learning provides a relevant blend of college-preparatory, technical, and human skills.
Rick: How has the pandemic impacted the program?
Elizabeth: Pre-COVID, Cristo Rey students collectively earned $80 million toward the cost of their own education, working with 3,500 corporate partners through the Corporate Work Study Program. Due to pandemic conditions, many students are not deployed in a job placement onsite or remotely, resulting in a decline of Corporate Work Study Program earnings. Like many businesses, our Corporate Work Study Program has pivoted to expand technical-skills training for our student workers and to incorporate a remote work program.
Rick: Does any other school or network employ a similar model?
Elizabeth: Cristo Rey is the only network of high schools that does this at scale. Organizations like KIPP, YES Prep Public Schools, and Mastery Charter Schools also seek to provide high-quality educational services with a to-and-through college emphasis for underrepresented, minority youth. The key differentiator between Cristo Rey and these organizations is our schools’ distinctive integration of a rigorous college-preparatory academic curriculum with our Corporate Work Study Program, offering not only an educational environment that equips students with skills to excel in their undergraduate and postgraduate lives but also a sustainable revenue model that does not rely solely on tuition, traditional fundraising, or government funding.
Rick: Do the profits from the work-study program completely cover tuition?
Elizabeth: Since our mission is to provide excellent career-focused, college-preparatory education to young people who otherwise could not likely access such an education, the work-study program provides the opportunity for students to earn their education through working, while at the same time developing soft and hard skills and social capital. Every family does contribute to their child’s education, on average $100 a month.
Rick: What can you tell us about your students’ outcomes?
Elizabeth: While our work is far from complete, we’re pleased to share that our key accomplishment is the postsecondary success of our students. Our students are enrolling in college at rates higher than even the highest-income quartile in the U.S. Thirty-four percent of our students are completing a four-year college—a rate more than two times higher than their demographic peer—and current college-persistence data for our class of 2017 projects a bachelor’s degree completion at a rate three times higher than their demographic peers. While our aspirational goal is that 70 percent of Cristo Rey graduates complete four-year degrees, we are making strong progress toward students earning college degrees at national rates comparable to students from families in the highest-income quartile.
Rick: What’s the one thing that people get wrong when they think about work-study in high school?
Elizabeth: People assume our students are “just interns.” Our students perform essential functions at their workplaces—providing real value for their employers. They do everything from highly detailed work like reconciling financial documents for errors to creative work supporting presentation design and much more. Students certainly learn and grow as a result of their experiences, and employers benefit in a tangible way, making a substantial impact on students. It’s a win-win for both our partners and our students.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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