December 31, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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American Dreamers 

A new Catholic school is promising college and career success to low income urban kids by putting them to work.

click to enlarge Cristo Rey student Antonae S. does her work study at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Scott Elmquist

Cristo Rey student Antonae S. does her work study at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

“On Jan. 13, 2017 my family had a house fire. My dad had to quit his job in order to focus on the house, my mom had to get extra jobs to help us financially, and even our friends helped us by donating items. Even though my parents’ dreams were put on hold, the strength they showed during this time showed me they can do anything…” – Elizabeth V.

It’s October, and freshman Elizabeth V. is drafting her first high school essay. On this morning, she rises at 5 a.m. and slips into her charcoal gray school uniform pants and blue blazer. She grabs a ride from Petersburg to Chesterfield then boards a school bus to take her across the river to Richmond’s leafy Museum District.

click to enlarge Cristo Rey is a national network of schools looking to revitalize urban Catholic education and serve the poor. Kathleen Powers, a teacher at Cristo Rey Richmond High School, moved here this summer from Arizona where she taught at Cristo Rey Tucson. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Cristo Rey is a national network of schools looking to revitalize urban Catholic education and serve the poor. Kathleen Powers, a teacher at Cristo Rey Richmond High School, moved here this summer from Arizona where she taught at Cristo Rey Tucson.

For 100 years the Romanesque revival building on Sheppard Street housed Benedictine College, a Catholic military school that produced famous alumni such as Tom Bliley and Steve Bannon. Today it is home to a different kind of disciplined academy, invented by Jesuits and sponsored by the Sisters of Bon Secours. Its mission: extend the same opportunity to low-income urban adolescents that the young men of Benedictine, at $19,300 a year, enjoy in their Goochland County home.

Elizabeth’s new high school is part of a national network to revitalize urban Catholic education and renew the church’s mission to serve the poor. Its name is Cristo Rey.

The theme that Elizabeth and her Cristo Rey classmates are tackling today is “What is your American dream?” Interview relatives, they were told, and reflect on what the American dream means for you and your family.

“My family has achieved the American dream because they are happy together,” writes Dennis F. “My sister and I have been able to come a long way from where we were. We were really big troublemakers, now we’re seen as smart, independent kids.”

Other students are less sanguine.

“Many people can’t achieve their American dream … because they don’t get the right amount of money they deserve,” writes Damarion G. “Think about the strain that people have to go through. These people work so hard just to get to the place they are today — in a small apartment with a bunch of annoying neighbors.”

click to enlarge An exterior of Cristo Rey Richmond High School, which is located on Sheppard Street in the building that formerly housed Benedictine. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • An exterior of Cristo Rey Richmond High School, which is located on Sheppard Street in the building that formerly housed Benedictine.

The woman behind this project is a young English teacher named Kathleen Powers. She arrived this summer from Arizona where she taught at Cristo Rey Tucson. You immediately sense that she is up to the challenge: Crisp, focused and funny, she voices a level of commitment missing in many, both inside and outside the classroom. Only 25, she burns for the job she has been hired to do.

“Writing is a tool I have always had at my disposal,” she says. “Writing has gotten me to all of the places I have ever been.” One remarkable destination was dinner with novelist Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Powers’ hometown of Mobile, Alabama, sponsored an annual middle school essay contest in which the winners got to dine with Lee, the local literary icon. Powers won the contest three years straight.

Powers’ mother, a lawyer, repeatedly corrected her grammatical mistakes and made her improve her written expression. “My mom instilled a love of reading, and she read everything I wrote from the time I was little. This is why I’m good at writing, because I’m not special.”

Spend any time with Powers and you will sense she grasps, in a visceral way, how important ideas and their effective communication will be to the future success of her freshmen.

“I see their writing and I stress, and I worry,” she says. “I need help from the type of people who have had writing open up doors for them as well.”

That is why on this October morning, two dozen of us middle class adults are consuming essays on the American dream from some of our community’s most economically challenged youngsters. We work one-on-one, offering suggestions on grammar, usage and tense. We propose more logical sentence order. But these essays need work — a lot of work.

“The Richmond freshmen are further behind than the kids I taught in Arizona,” Powers confides. “They know how behind they are academically.”

Cristo Rey was the brainchild of several Chicago Jesuits who wanted to serve a changing, poorer population in that city’s Pilsen neighborhood. The innovative model, with the Rev. John P. Foley at the helm, started slowly but became a nationwide phenomenon once word of its success spread. Today there are 37 Cristo Rey college prep schools across 24 states.

Cristo Rey combines “rigorous college preparatory academic curriculum with a 4-year corporate work study program providing an educational environment that equips students to excel in their undergraduate and post-graduate lives,” according to its website.

The cornerstone of the model is work. Not only do these kids go to school for nine hours a day, but once a week they work at corporate headquarters, not-for-profits and even the Bliley family funeral home in the West End. Nationwide, the 3,450 participating corporate partners pay salaries of more than $68 million for the students’ service, contributing 60 percent of the students’ tuition.

click to enlarge Peter McCourt, president of Cristo Rey Richmond High School, is an ordained deacon who taught religious studies at Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Peter McCourt, president of Cristo Rey Richmond High School, is an ordained deacon who taught religious studies at Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Some might worry that placing employment demands on an economically challenged group of youngsters, on top of rigorous academic challenges, could be harmful. Cristo Rey officials point to its 18,035 graduates since 1996, 90% of whom have enrolled in college, and say they are three times as likely as similar low-income students to graduate by age 24. The current Cristo Rey network comprising 13,000 students, of whom 98% are of color — reports a 97% daily attendance rate and 95% rate of meeting or exceeding expectations in the workplace.

Some Cristo Rey schools, like Chicago and Atlanta, are run by the Jesuits alone. But in cities like Richmond, other Catholic partners step up. Here, the bishop asked the Sisters of Bon Secours to sponsor the new school.

McCourt executed the necessary charter change and thought he was done. That’s when the sisters asked him if he could lead the new school.

An ordained deacon, McCourt had taught religious studies at Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as leadership studies at Loyola Chicago. But initially he felt unsure about becoming the chief executive of Cristo Rey.

“Look,” a Bon Secours board member told him. “You have opened three hospitals. You have done organizational leadership. This is just a high school and a work-study program. You just hire the right principal and the right work study program head.”

McCourt then visited Cristo Rey schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Only one had an educator for chief executive, and all were successful. By February of last year, McCourt had signed on as president.

He soon learned that all Cristo Rey schools must meet strict feasibility standards. In Richmond’s case, the school needed $5 million in the bank prior to launch. Bon Secours brought $1 million to the table. The archdiocese kicked in half a million. Then McCourt persuaded two wealthy families — one Catholic, one Episcopalian — to deliver major donations to help reach the goal.

Going forward, McCourt will have to keep up the pace. Cristo Rey Richmond must raise $10 million to finish reconstructing the academic buildings and restoring Memorial Gymnasium where Benedictine captured 31 state basketball titles, but which now resembles a dilapidated set from the movie “Hoosiers.” He must also produce $1.2 million annually to keep the lights on and supplement tuition, as students only pay 5 to 10% themselves.

To say that Richmond adolescents could benefit from a new secondary school strategy is more than an understatement. Only 10% of Richmond Public School high schoolers are judged ready for college and a career, according to College Board data released in the summer. That number improved glacially from 9% a year earlier, but it remains well below the 44% figure statewide. School Superintendent Jason Kamras is aiming for 22% college readiness by 2022- ‘23, but similar recent goals have fallen short.

click to enlarge Kathleen Powers says that her students in Richmond were further behind than the ones in Arizona, and they knew it. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Kathleen Powers says that her students in Richmond were further behind than the ones in Arizona, and they knew it.

Meanwhile, Cristo Rey is targeting 100% college acceptance for a similar economically challenged student population. How will this be possible? Officials cite increased hours of study and extra community resources. From her perspective as a teacher, Powers says the real key is the school’s triad of “faith, purpose and service.”

“If there were not a greater purpose, if it were not for the sake of servicing yourself and your family and future generations, and if it weren’t held together with faith, I don’t know if you could ask that much of a 14-year-old and tell them it was going to be worth it,” she says. “I don’t know how a public school could demand that much of everybody.”

The Cristo Rey model does have its critics. Monique Pressley, a radio host and lawyer in Washington has said that the network’s model could siphon away top talent from public schools and eliminate their parents’ involvement in public education. Pressley said she believes that corporate dollars would be better spent improving public schools for all students.

Author Megan Sweas, who wrote about the Cristo Rey model in her book “Putting Education to Work,” noted that the schools are not for everyone.

“Students with learning disabilities or individual education plans may struggle with the [Cristo Rey] schedule,” Sweas said in an interview with online newsletter Education Dive in 2015. However, Sweas praised the role that work plays in developing accuracy, attention to detail and persistence in Cristo Rey students. Sweas also noted that while many private schools are criticized for cherry-picking the best public school students, Cristo Rey remains largely immune because of its strict adherence to accepting only those from low-income families.

Corey Taylor knows what low-income urban children can achieve. Taylor ran Bright Star Secondary Academy in Central Los Angeles, a top-rated public charter school, before McCourt hired him as Cristo Rey’s principal. Bright Star has had significant success in college admission and retention. But even for Taylor, the complexity of the Cristo Rey model will be a new challenge.

“This model would be virtually unsustainable for any school larger than what we are going to be,” Taylor notes. “The scheduling matrix alone. …”

Taylor is talking about the difficulty in mixing accelerated academics with complex job-sharing in which four students divide up one corporate job across the workweek. Businesses establish the job criteria and the students take turns reporting for duty. A good example can be seen at RiverFront Investment Group in the old Richbrau Brewery on Cary Street.

click to enlarge Corey Taylor, the principal of Cristo Rey Richmond, formerly worked with urban children at Bright Star Secondary Academy in Los Angeles. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Corey Taylor, the principal of Cristo Rey Richmond, formerly worked with urban children at Bright Star Secondary Academy in Los Angeles.

“We are starting to see the strengths that each of the students brings,” says Cheron Smalls, RiverFront’s director of human resources. “Anthony and Elman are developing an interest in finance. Mahogonie’s shown interest in marketing. Alex has expressed an interest in HR.”

Cristo Rey’s corporate work study staff, led by Amy McCracken, visit with RiverFront and all participating employers and make sure the arrangement works for interns and employers alike.

“When you bring a 14-year-old into the workplace, you don’t know what you’re going to get,” Taylor says.

Both Taylor and McCourt cite the positive employer response as the year’s best surprise, noting that one business reported a Cristo Ray student scoring as high or higher than other entry level employees.

But academically, the surprise has gone in the other direction. Cristo Rey has found that some students who entered with at-grade-level credentials were two grades behind.

“A large number have not come properly prepared for the rigor a college preparatory high school holds,” Taylor says. “This school moves a little faster. Grades are a little tougher.”

He sees his biggest challenge as consistency of academic effort or “getting the entire student body to understand the importance that each day holds.”

To catch these students up, Cristo Rey offers remediation through Student Success classes once problems in English and math surface. Also offered are intense English as a second language classes for those facing a language barrier. Powers tag-teams with Felecia Nelson, a specialist on English skills. They have a lot of remediating to do.

Powers’ second major essay assignment, “find a Greek myth and retell it in our time and place,” produced better results than the American dream exercise. Still, six students managed to write an entire essay without using a single comma, Powers says, shaking her head.

click to enlarge Diego Marti Vertiz, a quantitative analyst from RiverFront Investment Group, works with student Elman C. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Diego Marti Vertiz, a quantitative analyst from RiverFront Investment Group, works with student Elman C.

“I go to bed and I feel good about what I have done,” she admits. “But I also feel the weight of what I didn’t accomplish.”

Gradually, Taylor says, knowledge is increasing. Behaviors are changing. “Students say that this place makes them feel different.”

“Some of these kids come from pretty tough backgrounds,” says the Rev. Joseph Parkes, who started the New York Cristo Rey in 2004 and sat on the national Cristo Rey board for six years. “The temptation is to take it easy on them. But the worst thing is to let kids think they are victims. We worked them hard. We wanted results. We got results.”

“You have to give the kids a ton of credit,” says college admissions consultant Patricia Casey with McGuire Associates in Concord, Massachusetts, who sees Cristo Rey students from around the country. “They are definitely putting more into their education than 95 percent of other kids.”

Perhaps that is why Kamras is directing the Richmond Public Schools toward theme-based middle and high schools, hoping to reap success by instilling greater purpose and a sense of mission.

McCourt credits the Richmond Public Schools with improved technical education. He says Cristo Rey’s focus is different.

“We know that a college degree changes the pay scale,” McCourt says. “We think it is better for you coming from a limited income background to get a college degree. That changes the trajectory of your family in the future.”

To that end, more than 50 colleges nationwide have signed on as Cristo Rey partners, granting acceptance and scholarships. Locally, Cristo Rey graduates whose families make less than $60,000 a year may be eligible for University of Richmond’s Promise to Virginia, which provides full tuition and room and board without loans.

“Cristo Rey kids are unbelievable kids from unbelievable families,” says Matt Fissinger, vice president for admissions at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, a Cristo Rey partner. “They will be worth every penny.”

One person who understands the importance of college partnership is Gabe Obregon, who attended Cristo Rey in New York and then graduated from University of Richmond in 2018. Obergon speaks on behalf of Cristo Rey and serves as McCourt’s chief of staff.

“He’s the proof that the model works,” McCourt says.

The model is not for everybody. While 24 students were excited to make Cristo Rey’s first quarter honor roll, seven members of the initial class of 95 have already dropped out. Others struggle. But as freshman Mario P. wrote in his final essay for Kathleen Powers:

click to enlarge Gabe Obregon, a graduate of Cristo Rey New York, graduated from the University of Richmond in 2018 and now speaks on behalf of the program. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gabe Obregon, a graduate of Cristo Rey New York, graduated from the University of Richmond in 2018 and now speaks on behalf of the program.

“Life … doesn’t come easy, it always involves hard work and sacrificing something as well. But it’s almost always worth all the work you put into your American dream.”

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