New Jesuit high school for low-income students

By Joe Palazzolo
Sun reporter

February 11, 2006

A new Jesuit-run high school will offer a college-prep curriculum for low-income Baltimore students and steer them to part-time jobs in professional offices to help them earn money to cover tuition costs.

The Maryland Province Jesuits say Cristo Rey High School will offer a glimmer of hope in a city where census figures show that 26.2 percent of the children live in poverty and the median household income is $30,078.

Yesterday, Maryland Province Jesuits, corporate sponsors and city officials met at Loyola College to unveil plans for the school, which would open in 2007 at 1634 Guilford Ave. in an old city elementary school that was shuttered in 2001 because of declining enrollment. The city turned over the building to the Jesuits for $1.

Baltimore's Cristo Rey high school would join a network that includes other Cristo Rey schools in cities such as Cambridge, Mass., and Los Angeles. The schools pair students with jobs in a work-study program that covers much of their tuition costs.

In Baltimore, the cost to attend the school would be $8,750, but corporate sponsors would pick up $6,250 of the tuition and financial aid would account for $1,250, leaving the families to come up with the remaining $1,250.

The new Cristo Rey school is to start with a class of 99 students and add an additional class for three years until it has classes ranging from the ninth to 12th grades.

Will Buttarazzi, who is conducting a feasibility study for the new school, said the proposed site is centrally located and would give the students easy access to the companies that are expected to provide them part-time jobs.

Buttarazzi said the cost of renovating the 63,000-square-feet building has not been determined.

The project has 27 corporate partners, including seven hospitals, five law firms, five financial companies, two construction companies, three colleges and five nonprofit organizations.

Sister Helen Amos, executive chairwoman of Mercy Health Services, one of the corporate partners, said she hoped that some students would be drawn to health professions at a time when they are in high demand.

But more importantly, she said, her goal was "to set these young people on paths for lifetime career advancement."

Maryland Province Jesuits has pledged $1 million for the project, but the school needs startup funds for renovations, staffing and transportation costs.

"It's a very simple concept," said the Rev. John Foley, president of the Cristo Rey Network. "The students work for a sponsor, the sponsor pays the fee to the work-study program, the work-study program puts that money right into the school, and the school provides the education for the students."

The Baltimore school will be run by the Rev. John Swope, a Jesuit who, before coming to Baltimore, spent seven years in Chile teaching and directing education programs.

Swope said yesterday that the school would work to develop "the fullness" of each student, in the Jesuit tradition.

The work-study program, he said, "uniquely offers kids a chance to see themselves in different environments, to try out new skills, to experiment, to pilot, and, in a sense, to find themselves. ... What a tremendously dignifying experience."

The first Cristo Rey school opened in Chicago in 1996 in response to a high dropout rate in a largely Mexican-American immigrant community.

Eleven Cristo Rey schools are now operating, and three more are scheduled to open this year.

Five more schools, including Baltimore's, are scheduled to open in 2007, Swope said.

Last year, the 11 Cristo Rey schools produced 242 graduates. Ninety-five percent went to two-year or four year colleges, Cristo Rey officials said.

The schools had a total enrollment of 2,444 students, 49 percent male and 51 percent female. The students came from families with a median family income of $31,660.

Philanthropist B.J. Cassin established the Cristo Rey Network in 2001. Cristo Rey means "Christ the King."

The network dispenses resources to each of the member schools, though Foley said that as the network grows local funding and partnerships must absorb the costs.

The program is demanding, Cristo Rey officials were careful to point out. Students are grouped into "job-sharing" teams to cover a full workweek. Cristo Rey transports the students to and from their professional internships.

Each team member works one day a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and attends classes for the other four. And shoehorning the traditional five-day class schedule into four means longer hours in the classroom.

"It's like having four schools, each with a four-day school week, under one roof," Foley said.