How a Jesuit Network Is Transforming Urban Education

Eight lessons all schools could learn from the Cristo Rey Network of college prep schools.

The new Common Core standards aim to prepare students for college and careers, but the results have been discouraging. Less than a third of New York students passed Common Core–aligned tests in 2013, and many teachers complained that they had not been prepared well enough to implement the standards, the New York Times reported.

CRISTOREY_PuttingEduc_HCEducators at Cristo Rey Network schools — Catholic, college preparatory high schools for underrepresented urban youth — have learned the key to a curriculum that can be successfully applied across a variety of students: teaching them how to think.

With 28 schools and counting, the Cristo Rey Network of schools has come a long way since its first school opened in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood in 1996.

Back then, its founders aimed to do something new with Catholic urban education: create a school that served low-income students without relying solely on donations and scholarships. The schools are sustainable because students work five days a month in businesses, earning their tuition and being exposed to a wealth of opportunities.

The schools now boast 100 percent college acceptance rate for seniors, and the majority of students matriculate at two- or four-year institutions within a year of graduating from high school — at rates equal to those of the highest-income Americans. For the graduating classes of 2005-2007, 42 percent of the students who enrolled after high school graduated from college — twice the rate of peers from the same economic background.

The Cristo Rey Network has transformed an experiment run out of a gym into an innovative model of high-school education that combines the best of Catholic education with the lessons of education reform.

Although the Cristo Rey work-study program garners a lot of attention, what’s really special about the schools is that educators are still learning as they go — and they’re collaborating to implement the best possible curriculum. The key lesson of the Cristo Rey Network? Its culture of high expectation.

The Cristo Rey Network sees its model of education (which I describe in detail in my new book Putting Education to Work) not as a catchall solution, but one of the many needed remedies for the challenges of urban education. That said, here are eight lessons all schools can learn from Cristo Rey:

1. Make learning applicable. The corporate work-study started as a financial model, but the educators soon realized it improved student achievement as well. Not all schools can copy the program, but field trips, summer programs, and opportunities for students to reflect on and articulate their long-term goals help boost motivation. Students need to know why their education matters, career and college readiness expert David Conley told me.

2. Emphasize character growth. Grit. Perseverance. Self control. Cristo Rey school leaders see faith as a critical component of their education, but they don’t shy away from secular conceptions of character. In fact, the work-study program’s benefits come largely from developing these personal skills.

3. Create a community. Early research into Catholic schools attributed success to their communal nature. Cristo Rey schools involve parents and have students participate in retreats and service opportunities. New research suggests that this can have a positive effect on inner-city neighborhoods as well.

4. Effective leadership is key. When Cristo Rey schools have struggled, it’s mostly related to leadership. Cristo Rey schools have governing boards to promote the involvement of business, education, civic, and religious leaders. In the school, the president, principal, and work-study director work collaboratively to ensure that everyone buys into the model.

5. Data matters. From test scores to financial benchmarks, Cristo Rey schools use data to understand where they are. But it’s not enough to simply look at the numbers. Schools must use data to improve their programs.

6. Equip teachers to engage students. I cannot list all the teaching strategies used to engage students in Cristo Rey schools, but the bigger point is that teachers are trained to use them consistently across classrooms. Catholic schools have earned a reputation for having great academic programs, and Cristo Rey school leaders could have rested on their laurels. But from the beginning, the educators have incorporated proven instructional strategies from the education reform world.

7. Believe in every student. The belief that every student can learn is foundational to Cristo Rey schools. Students come in two years behind grade level on average, and everyone in the school works to convince them that they are college material. “I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t know how to believe in myself,” one graduate of Cristo Rey Jesuit in Houston told me. “But the people here tell you, ‘Don’t give up don’t give up,’ pushing you and pushing you until you’re succeeding.”

8. Hold high expectations — of everyone. High expectations and encouragement aren’t just for students. Teachers, school administrators, and network officials are constantly pushing themselves to retain more students, raise academic achievement, and help graduates complete college.

This last lesson is the most important. Specific teaching methods, data points, or character programs might change within the Cristo Rey Network. But the high expectations are what keep both the students and the adults focused on moving forward.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Megan Sweas
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