Statue Cristo Redentor

Shortly after I heard about President Bush's proposal for Pell Grants for low-income children to attend parochial schools, I finished reading More than a Dream: The Christo Rey Story, a inspirational book about the founding of the first Christo Rey Jesuit high school in Chicago's Pilsen/Little Village neighborhood.

More than a Dream is a history of the challenges that Jesuit leaders and Jesuit school alumni faced twelve years ago. Cristo Rey started with a focus on its neighborhood, to educate low income Hispanic high school students while charging their families little to no tuition. Instead of being charged full tuition, students would be required to work one day a week in a corporate sponsored internship program and sign their wages over to the school. In addition to the work-study arrangement, Cristo Rey taught non-language arts courses: social studies, science, religion and arts in Spanish so that students could learn these subjects in their stronger language. Cristo Rey also attempted to bridge school and work with orientations as well as experiential learning. Since 1997, the first Cristo Rey school has had tremendous success in getting low-income students into Jesuit and state supported colleges.

However, this school grew from meager beginnings. It did not admit freshman at first, as a promise not to place other Chicago-area Catholic schools at a competitive disadvantage; it also scheduled entrance examinations on different dates from the other schools. It did not admit students who had criminal records, or special needs, as public schools must do, and it had a very modest facility, a closed Catholic middle school with a roller skating rink that was later converted into the cafeteria.

Cristo Rey ran deficits in excess of $1 million for its first five years in operation, but Jesuit clerics and Jesuit school alumni from the business community stayed the course.

I doubt politicians and voters would have been equally patient with a public charter school that had an equal number of students.

Today, Cristo Rey is among 30 high schools in 19 cities run by the national Cristo Rey Network. The Nativity Miguel Network, a similar venture, has 64 members, mostly middle schools. Both are excellent models for delivering an education to low income students in cities that have a corporate community large enough to support the internship program. For instance, close to my home, the Network opened the first new Catholic school in Newark since 1964, welcoming 105 students in September 2007. Newark was the best city for the Network to open a new school in New Jersey; it has the largest corporate and university community among the state's urban centers, and the larger corporations, especially Prudential, are stand-out contributors to social services and economic development in the city.

One cannot help but be awed by the determination and accomplishments of the Cristo Rey Network.

It also makes me wonder why other parochial school educators have approached President Bush for fiscal relief, when there are so many lessons about fundraising, leadership and academic programming to be learned from the Cristo Rey story.