By Guest Columnist BILL GARRETT, president of the Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School
On July 14th, a Cristo Rey high school opened its doors in the heart of Midtown – bringing a successful national model to Atlanta.
Sometimes we only hear about the problems of schools— high costs, lack of measurable results, questions of competence, conflicts of linking incentives to test scores, and the layers of politics.
That’s why the opening of Cristo Rey in Atlanta is good news because it tells a different story. The story is being written by a team of committed educators and volunteers as well as 41 of Atlanta’s premiere businesses and 154 high school freshmen.
The Cristo Rey story started in 1996, when the first such school opened its doors in the tough Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. The idea was simple: if high school students from lower income families could be given an opportunity to receive a high quality, college preparatory education they, too, could go on to college and break the cycle of poverty in their families just as their wealthier peers had done.
They were right. Over time, the effect of this school was transformative for the students and their families. For the first time, a group of young people who likely were not going to college, did in fact go on to college at staggering rates in comparison to their peers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
But how did they afford a school that their families could not pay for?
As a way to underwrite the cost of the school, the founders of the first Cristo Rey came up with an innovative approach that combined academics and real work experience. Students would go to work in area businesses, and the salary they earned would help off-set a portion of their tuition.
This was not a sponsorship, but a partnership. This program has evolved into what is now called the Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP). It is the backbone of the school’s success, and one of the many reasons 100 percent of Cristo Rey graduates in the 28 schools around the nation are accepted to college each year.
The CWSP is made up of companies who hire student teams of 4 students to cover a full-time entry-level equivalent position. The company pays the school directly, and that fee offsets a portion of the students’ tuition.
What nobody realized early on was that the CWSP would produce much more than just a financial benefit; it would become a constant reminder to the students of the importance of their education, help them grow in self-confidence, and ultimately give them valuable job experience that prepared them to succeed in college and in life.
The success of that first Cristo Rey School received national attention, and philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates and the Walton Family gave tens of millions of dollars to replicate the model in other communities.
Within just a few years, cities including Los Angeles, Denver, Boston and New York had established their own Cristo Rey schools. The successes continued; for several years now, every single Cristo Rey graduate has been accepted into college.
Cristo Rey schools serve exclusively students from lower income families. In fact, all Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit students qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. The Atlanta business community has embraced the Cristo Rey model and 41 companies have stepped up to hire our students. Partners include iconic Atlanta companies like Cola-Cola Company, Cox Automotive, Delta Air Lines, Emory Healthcare, Home Depot, Invesco, Jones Day, QUIKRETE, SunTrust, Southerland Asbill & Brennan, Southern Company, to name a few.
Unique to Cristo Rey schools is that they do not focus the admissions process solely on academic performance, but on students who show “grit.” Not only must these students demonstrate the aptitude to tackle a college-preparatory, Jesuit education, they must also be employable. A strong work ethic, reliability, and self-motivation are characteristic of Cristo Rey students.
Over the next three years a new freshman class will be added until the school reaches full enrollment at 500 students. And in late May, 2018, the first class at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit will graduate, college acceptances in hand. Their bright futures will be something our whole city should celebrate and applaud.