Low-income families will welcome a parochial school they can afford

Gregory Kane

February 11, 2006

During the Depression years, Ruth Floyd -- one of six children of a poor black woman -- attended parochial school in West Baltimore. There was no cost for attending, she later told her oldest son, much to his shock and bewilderment.

During the early 1950s, Ruth Floyd had a low-wage job working in a laundry. But she was able to send her two daughters to the same Catholic school she attended. It wasn't free, but the tuition was low.

Then in 1956, it was time for her son to attend school. Ruth Floyd found she couldn't afford to send all three children to Catholic school. And she was determined that either all of her children would attend Catholic school, or none would.

By that time, Ruth Floyd had become Ruth Kane. She named her oldest son -- the one born with the suspiciously large forehead -- Gregory.

Boy, could Mom have used a school like Cristo Rey.

There are 11 Cristo Rey schools in the country. The first started in Chicago in 1996. Three are scheduled to open in Kansas City, Mo., Indianapolis and Sacramento, Calif., this year. Five are slated to open in 2007. One of them will be in Baltimore, on the site of the old Mildred Monroe Elementary School at 1634 Guilford Ave.

Perhaps by simple coincidence or divine Providence, 1634 is the year that Jesuit priests established roots in Maryland, according to a brochure entitled "Baltimore Cristo Rey." And it was Jesuits who established the first Cristo Rey school and went on to form 10 others. Baltimore's Cristo Rey will join Loyola Blakefield and St. Ignatius Loyola Academy as Jesuit schools in the Baltimore area.

Yesterday, supporters of Baltimore's Cristo Rey school gathered at another Jesuit institution -- Loyola College -- for a breakfast announcing the opening of the new institution. The Rev. John Swope, the president of Baltimore Cristo Rey, told those assembled how it will differ from other Catholic high schools in these parts.

"It will be a Catholic, co-ed, college preparatory, work-study high school for low-income students in Baltimore," Swope said. "Say all of that in one sentence."

Swope said there is an "overwhelming desire for this kind of school" in Baltimore. The problem has been that low-income parents can't afford to send their children to parochial schools. The average tuition for parochial primary schools, Swope said, is $3,500. That doubles in high school.

"The parents, unfortunately, cannot continue with that Catholic education," Swope said. Baltimore Cristo Rey, Swope added, will allow low-income parents to finance a Catholic school education that has previously eluded their children.

The Rev. Bill Watters, chairman of the school's board of trustees, said the annual tuition will be $8,750, which normally would be out of the price range of low-income parents. But with a combination of ingenuity and generosity, those parents may be able to handle tuition costs.

That's where the work-study portion of Baltimore Cristo Rey's program will be most effective. Students will work one day a week at one of 27 corporate partners who have agreed to hire them. Some of those partners include the Maryland Science Center, the National Aquarium, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Loyola College, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Legg Mason financial company.

Watters said the corporate partners will pay $6,250 of the tuition. The parents or guardians of the students will pay $1,250. The other $1,250 will come from what he called "benefactors," who can be private donors, companies or foundations that give scholarships.

A lot of folks should get credit for Baltimore Cristo Rey, and Hizzoner himself -- Mayor Martin O'Malley -- is among them. O'Malley is the product of a Jesuit education. He made the lengthy commute from Montgomery County -- no doubt passing up several excellent public schools along the way -- to attend Gonzaga College High School in the District of Columbia.

O'Malley attended Gonzaga in the days after D.C. -- like many cities in the country -- erupted in rioting after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. O'Malley, who addressed those attending the breakfast, said some folks thought about closing Gonzaga then. Wiser and cooler heads who remembered the Jesuit commitment to justice prevailed.

It was O'Malley's administration that sold the public school building known as Mildred Monroe Elementary School to Baltimore Cristo Rey for $1.

"We don't have money to give," O'Malley said of the city. (He's got that right.) "Oftentimes, we will convey real estate for a dollar. Sometimes we'll contribute land."

Some who attended the breakfast hope Baltimore Cristo Rey contributes more than that.

"This is a great, great thing," said Ralph Moore, the director of the community center at St. Frances Academy. "We need quality schools for our kids wherever we can find them. This is a proven model, and thank God it's coming."

St. Frances is also a Catholic school that serves low-income students. But Sister Marcia Hall, the school's principal, sees Baltimore Cristo Rey's role as complementary, not competitive.

"St. Frances can't do it alone," Hall said.