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Academic Rigor, Commitment Make Cristo Rey Tick

This Catholic college prep high school in Southwest Detroit stresses an eight year educational arc -- four at Cristo Rey and four more at the university level -- as its measure of success. 
The first thing you notice when you walk though the door of Detroit Cristo Rey High School is the silence. The usual din of teenagers is completely absent. No one loiters by their lockers or tries to slip beneath the watchful eyes of teacher to ditch class. Instead, the teens striding down the hallway are focused and serious, even on a casual-day Friday. They've got a job to do, in more ways than one. 

The centerpiece of Cristo Rey is its college-going culture. From the very first day of freshman year -- actually, even before that, during their August "boot camp" that prepares them for the school’s unique structure -- staff members are working with students so they will be admitted to college and successful once they get there. Younger students take ACT prep courses similar to well-off suburban kids for whom college is a given. Seniors take a college readiness class where they look for scholarships, identify resources and generally prepare themselves or the challenges of being, in many cases, the first people in their family to go to college.

"It begins when they are freshman, and there is just a constant conversation about setting goals," says Joellyn Valgoy, the school's vice president for academics who teaches college readiness. "By the time they are seniors, the attitude is such that they have a real eagerness and a drive to be successful."

In the school’s main hallway, a display case holding photos of each senior is lovingly tended, updated frequently with the logos of each college the student has been accepted to and a running tally of the scholarships the have been awarded. So far, the senior class of 37 students has racked up more than $1 million in total scholarships.

"We believe that where you are from does not dictate where you are going," says John Doyle, the school's director of development. He came to the school from a career in the private sector and commutes from South Lyon daily. It's more than a job to him; it’s a mission. "I had to do something more than just making money," Doyle says. "This is where I should have been all along."

Cristo Rey is part of a national network of schools, founded in 1996 in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago by Jesuit priest John Foley. The Detroit school opened in 2008 and graduated its first class of seniors last June. The Immaculate Heart of Mary order of nuns and the Basilian Fathers order of priests run the school. IHMs have for generations formed the backbone of Catholic education in Detroit; Basilian Fathers also run the all-boys Catholic Central High School in Novi.

The school is housed in the former Holy Redeemer high school building, which shares a campus with the Holy Redeemer church and elementary school. The 1920s-era edifices at the corner of Vernor and Junction, in the heart of Vernor’s humming commercial strip, are anchors in the largely Catholic Southwest Detroit neighborhood.

Despite the safe, caring environment at the school, this year, the school community was visited by the stark reality of the troubles plaguing the rest of of the city. Two sophomores at the school, Ileana Cuevas and Shane Glover, died this year in separate instances of gun violence. Photos of both are on display in the school’s chapel. The tragedies devastated students and adults alike; at this small school, everyone knew both young people well.

"You worry so much about your kids and want to keep them safe," says Doyle. "And these are all our kids."

While its academic rigor and commitment to college enrollment are unusual, what truly sets Cristo Rey apart is the financial model. Corporate work-study partners, who hire a team of students for an entry-level job, provide the bulk of the school’s funding as compensation for their student employees. That funding, approximately $27,000 for each team, goes back to the school operating budget, and fundraising makes up much of the rest. Families pay an average of only about $700 per year to send their child to the school, with their contribution based on family income. By way of contrast, the largest Catholic high school in the city, University of Detroit Jesuit, charges close to $11,000 per year.

The model not only keeps tuition affordable, but it teaches students about working in a professional setting. Students work five days a month at their site and are expected to dress and behave professionally. The schools rarely even have snow days, because their corporate partners generally are open even when schools shut down. 

Celina Ortiz, whose portrait in the display case is crowded with logos from all the colleges that she has been accepted to and all the scholarships she has received, works at the Skillman Foundation as a receptionist, and gushes that she loves her job. "They treat me like an equal," she says. "It makes me feel like I am doing something right."

Celina and her classmates have managed to excel in a rigorous, college prep curriculum. Three years of Latin are required, along with history, English, and 100 minutes of math a day (double the state requirement). The school day begins early, with an all-school assembly. Then a fleet of a dozen vans lined up outside take students to their various work locations. Around 90 businesses in the city and suburbs host Cristo Rey students. A team of students drawn from each class works at each partner one day a week and share a fifth day each month on a rotating basis. The day ends at 4 p.m., longer than a traditional school, and Doyle adds that about 3 hours of homework a day is standard.

Early data on Cristo Rey’s first graduating class shows that their graduates are doing well in college once they leave. School staff tracks their grades as much as possible and will give students a call if they appear to be struggling. "We say this is an eight-year program, four years here and four years at college," Doyle says.

There’s no question these kids have to battle some long odds to be successful. Almost all are eligible for free and reduced price lunch and almost all will be the first people in their families to go to college. But it’s clear that the staff and faculty at Cristo Rey are committed to making sure these kids reach their potential. "What happens to Detroit is our future, and that future is kids," says Doyle. "These are good kids and I just won’t ignore them. I believe in (the school). I see it is working."

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