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Andrew A. Nelles
Didier Garcia, 18, a senior at Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, works on inputting invoice information at Stepan Chemical in Northbrook on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015.

CHICAGO — It's 10 a.m., class change time in Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, and students are churning between rooms. The boys in dark slacks, colored dress shirts and ties, the girls dressed similarly.

The faces are purposeful but relaxed, the body posture is confident but free of swagger. Speak to students one-on-one and you get the same picture. They look you in the eye. They shake hands. The students at the Catholic college prep school in Chicago’s Lower West Side have a quiet maturity that visitors immediately sense, even if they don't know to look for it.

It looks like any other private high school, but for one detail: every single one of these kids is earning roughly 70 percent of their own tuition.

Moreover, they are all running uphill. Most of their parents did not graduate from high school, most speak no English at home, all are poor — many live in real poverty — and most start high school reading two grade levels behind.

Once a week, starting as 14-year-old freshmen, each Cristo Rey student arrives at 7:15 in the morning to climb into vans, from which Crist Rey employees deliver them to major corporations in the Chicago area. There, they work for a full day in a white collar environment, mostly doing entry-level professional work, often clerical and bookkeeping tasks.

To make up the time the other four days, they have fewer electives, a longer school day that runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and a 10-month school calendar.

They earn roughly 70 percent of their own tuition, cutting what would typically be an $11,000 or $12,000 annual tuition to $3,000 or below, and 90 percent of families are given need-based scholarships to cover that portion.

Cristo Rey in Chicago started out in 1996 as an experiment, but it has since become a model and a network. There are now 30 Cristo Rey high schools, mostly clustered in the Midwest and Northeast but scattered through the South and West as well. The newest schools, in Milwaukee and Dallas, started up this year.

The financial side of the work study program does its job. Students at Cristo Rey schools nationwide earned $44 million in tuition in the 2013-2014 calendar year. And roughly 90 percent of the corporate partners always return the next year.

Academically, it also seems to pay off. While Cristo Rey students are not breaking new barriers on ACT scores, they are graduating from high school and enrolling in college at much higher rates than their demographic peers. Cristo Rey graduates earn college degrees at twice the rate of other low-income high school graduates, and 30 percent higher than all high school graduates nationally.

"Something is happening here that goes beyond traditional measures of academic success, because based on the ACT scores alone our students should not be completing college," said Michael Odiotti, principal of Cristo Rey St. Martin in Waukegan, an industrial suburb just north of Chicago.

That something may be that the kids are gaining confidence interacting with and thinking like college-educated adults, earning pride and ownership in their school, and realizing that the work world is not that far away and they can cut it there, says Odiotti, whose doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, filed this year, focuses on Cristo Rey's work study program.

A double solution?

The Cristo Rey model may accidentally have landed on a double solution to two distinct college and career readiness problems plaguing the nation.

The first problem is simple maturity. In 2014 Gallup produced two conflicting polls. In the first, only 11 percent of business leaders said U.S. college graduates had what they needed for the workplace. In the second, 96 percent of academic leaders thought they were effectively preparing students for the world of work. Both polls cannot be right. And the smart money, it would seem, would be on the employers doing the hiring.

This lack of readiness pairs well with widespread concern about a “failure to launch syndrome” in America. The Pew Research Center found that in 2012, 34 percent of young adults between 18 and 30 were living at home, the highest ratio in over four decades.

Even more troubling is the gap between students from poorer, less-educated families and those better off. Children of parents who never went to college, or even finished high school, always have less social capital, fewer role models, fewer “air bags,” as Robert Putnam put it in his 2014 book "Our Kids.”

Informal conversations on college prep that other kids have at home often never happen, many analysts have noted, leading to dramatically different perceived horizons based on income and family background.

Father John Foley is the founder of the original Cristo Rey school and the godfather of the network. The work study program is Cristo Rey's “secret sauce,” Foley said.

Despite the longer hours and reduced activities, Foley said the work program plays a key role in recruitment and retention. “The thing kids most like about our schools, across the board," he said, "is that they are part of the work world and get treated like adults.”

Asking questions

Didier Garcia, who just turned 18, is now a senior at Cristo Rey St. Martin. He says his favorite subject is math and he wants to major in computer science in college.

Garcia's profile is typical of Cristo Rey students. His father emigrated from Mexico in 1986, and his mother joined his father in the U.S. shortly before he was born. His father works in building maintenance, and neither parent graduated from high school or speaks much English. Still, it was their idea to send him to Cristo Rey St. Martin as a high school freshman four years ago. This year, his younger sister joined him as a freshman.

Garcia is also starting his fourth year as a employee at Stepan Chemical in Northfield, Illinois, about 35 minutes south of Waukegan. He works there once a week for a full day, mostly doing filing and billing.

His most memorable moment happened, he says, while he was using Excel to process billing statements and noticed that his totals were not adding up. "The numbers were way off," Garcia said, "and I was freaking out.”

He talked to his supervisor and was surprised when she responded very gently and brought in some coworkers. Together, they found the error. But that was an afterthought for Garcia. His key discovery was the experience of collaborating and communicating.

He opened up at work, he said, but that epiphany also carried over to school, where he has become more quick to ask questions of the teacher and consult with peers. "I'm much more open than I used to be," he said.

Garcia’s story is typical of the students Michael Odiotti surveyed, many of whom singled out better communication skills as a primary effect of work study.

Social capita

Susanna Gonzalez graduated from St. Martin in 2011, going on to Georgetown University where she majored in justice and peace studies. Now 22, she is leaving for Guatemala for a stint in the Peace Corps, after which she plans to attend graduate school.

Her family story closely resembles Garcia’s: immigrant parents, little English, her father working in landscaping. She also cites communication skills as a primary payoff for the work study, noting that she gained confidence that paid off when she had to interact with professors at Georgetown.

Gonzalez also says the work/school balance became second nature to her thanks to her experience at Cristo Rey. She worked at least 20 hours a week throughout her college years at Georgetown.

In high school, she worked for Allstate for two years, doing mainly clerical work, and in her senior year she did real market research at Kraft Foods, where they had her studying the sales effects of shelf placement, among other marketing issues.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Gonzalez said she found mentors at work who helped her navigate college preparation. Her coworkers told her about their own college experiences, and, more crucially, shared their own kids’ more recent college experiences.

From her coworkers, she gained insights on financial aid, scholarships, choosing majors, and dorm life. This gave Gonzalez the kind of surrogate social capital that upper middle-class children often take for granted. "I couldn't have those conversations at home," Gonzalez said.

Next steps

No one at Cristo Rey thinks they've found a silver bullet. Odiotti notes that Cristo Rey has improved ACT scores, but not yet by a large margin. And while Cristo Rey sent 89 percent of its 2008 graduates to college, only 32 percent finished a four-year degree. The class of 2009 fared better, with 37 percent earning four-year degrees and an additional 7 percent earning associate’s degrees.

Those numbers are impressive compared to the 15 percent of low-income high school graduates nationally who get four-year degrees. But there is room to grow when compared to the 73 percent of high-income high school graduates who made it through college in six years.

Cristo Rey is working hard to overcome college attrition for its graduates, aiming to get 70 percent of its grads through college. Almost all the failures now occur among those who start at community colleges and never finish, Odiotti notes, and Loyola University in Chicago has just started a promising Catholic junior college designed to help students seamlessly bridge that gap.

Then there are also lingering questions about how much of Cristo Rey's success might be due to self-selection. Are only the most driven students and families seeking out a school that requires such sacrifices? If so, the grit that Cristo Rey graduates demonstrate tells more about who the school gets rather than the experience itself.

“That’s a valid question,” Odiotti says. But he’s not sure there is any way to prove the program’s impact with hard, objective numbers.

Meanwhile, high graduation rates and higher-than-expected college entrance rates suggest something is happening, even as the network strives to improve those outcomes.

But perhaps the best evidence of the work study program’s impact, aside from its obvious financial success in paying tuition for poor families, is anecdotal. Odiotti has carefully collected these stories with surveys and case studies, and they all point to the conclusion that Cristo Rey students gain confidence and maturity by spending four years working with adults.

And to see it in real time, walk through a hallway at a Cristo Rey school. Shake hands with and talk to a high school senior. Listen to the confidence. It may not show up in a table or a graph, but it’s hard to deny.

Email: [email protected]