by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Cristo Rey High School sophomore Henry Smith is going to be an emergency-room physician someday. He’s known this since he was eight years old.
He’s also planning on being the valedictorian of this small, private school’s first graduating class — but he might have some competition there.
That’s because Cristo Rey, a Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth high school in Kansas City, Mo., is instilling Henry’s kind of confidence in all of its students.
And that’s important, because Henry and his classmates are from circumstances that normally don’t lead to college careers.
But Cristo Rey High School, the first in the Kansas City area and one of 19 nationwide, includes a Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP) that allows students to work during school hours to earn the cost of their education.
The Cristo Rey concept evolved as way to provide a college preparatory education to economically disadvantaged youth — helping bright, motivated students like Henry realize their dream of a college education.
The CWSP is a 501(c)(3) incorporated into the school. It works somewhat like a temp agency, placing students with companies to fill 40-hour-per-week, entry-level clerical positions.
Four students share each full-time job. There’s a student for each day of the week, Tuesday through Friday. On Monday, one of the four students rotates through, so that each student ends up working five days a month, fulfilling a 10-month service-for-fee contract.
Employers don’t have to worry about putting students on their payroll or paying benefits, and CWSP does all the paperwork.
Cristo Rey students are responsible for getting from their home to school each day. The school then transports them to and from their work site, making sure they’re on time and properly dressed.
The school has a strict dress code for both school and work: Young men are expected to wear ties, dress pants and dress shoes; young women wear modest business attire.
Because they are scheduled out of class for their work day, students don’t miss any actual class time.
To prepare for their work experience, Cristo Rey students go through a rigorous three-week corporate work/study training before school starts their freshman year.
“We teach them everything — from shaking someone’s hand and looking them in the eye, to hygiene and dressing for success, to the practical components of what they will be doing,” said Cristo Rey’s development director Andrew Stith.
Providence Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., employs four Cristo Rey students, including Henry. Each student is assigned to a specific department on his/her day. Henry is in the business development office every Thursday and one Monday each month.
“Because he wants to be a doctor, they thought getting him into a health-care environment might be a good opportunity for him to see other things that happen in the hospital,” said his supervisor, Catherine Rice, senior associate of communication for Providence Medical Center and St. John Hospital.
“He’s very grateful and understanding and adaptable to what needs to be done. He has a real desire to educate himself. He has a strong work ethic already,” she said.
There’s no doubt Henry has always been a bright student and a top performer at school, but he insists that’s not what Cristo Rey is all about.
“It’s not like they want the best of the best. They want people who are college bound,” he explained. “When they see your test scores, they look at what you need help with and try to focus on that with tutoring programs. They want to make you the best.”
Sophomore Ines Soto is a Cristo Rey student with a unique perspective. The school had already reached its enrollment capacity when she applied last year, so she went to a public high school. This year, she was admitted to Cristo Rey.
“Cristo Rey is better because you get to know the teachers better. Everybody knows you by your name,” she said. “There’s a big difference in what kids want. At Cristo, kids are focused on the future. You hear them say, ‘I have to do my homework.’”
Ines does her work/study at the Duchesne Clinic in Kansas City, Kan., under the supervision of clinic manager Gloria Guerra.
“There are four students that come here, and they’re treated just like the staff,” said Guerra. “They have a schedule of the duties they have to perform.”
Guerra said the students have worked their way toward a great deal of job responsibility, especially in the medical records department, where they pull patient charts and ready them for appointments.
“The patients come in the next day. If we don’t have the charts — the paperwork isn’t in there — it’s going to slow everything down,” said Guerra.
Ines has progressed so rapidly that she can now run the department independently.
“We’ve had times when either because of meetings or illness, our medical person didn’t come in and [Ines has] had to run the department,” said Guerra. “We went in there to see if we could assist, but she took over and got it done.”
That’s not unusual, said Stith.
“The range of work that the students do tends to branch off from the entry level, clerical skills that they go in with, into project work,” he noted, “once they prove to the company that they’re capable of handling that.”
CWSP has reaped benefits far beyond the tuition raised. Students are getting a taste of the corporate world, and discovering their interests and the strengths they have to share.
Ines, for example, enjoys her job and co-workers, but has discovered she doesn’t want a future in the field of medical records.
After working at Providence, on the other hand, Henry is more certain than ever that he wants to be a doctor.
Stith believes it’s those intangibles that make it such a wonderful program for inner-city students.
“It broadens students’ horizons, gets them into a world that they never dreamed they would be a part of before — a world that needs them and that they have something to offer,” he said. “In short, it gives them hope.”
Companies have the option to hire students on for the summer or Christmas break, and a number of companies have done so. Henry did his work/study at a bank last school year and worked there through the summer.
In that situation, companies can still pay the school, but the money students earn is theirs to keep, so it’s a huge incentive for the students to make themselves indispensable.
Companies are also forming an attachment to the students. Henry’s co-workers adopted his family for Christmas. Then, over spring break, employees volunteered to help him with transportation so he could continue to work at Providence.
“By the time they graduate, students will have a resume of up to four different corporate experiences, and a network,” said Stith. “There are even some companies who have approached us and said, ‘Hey, does this kid need help with college?’ or ‘Let’s have further conversation about how we might continue to participate in a certain student.’”
But Cristo Rey Kansas City is just part of the story. The entire movement is taking hold across the country. The Cristo Rey network has set a goal to open 30 more schools nation-wide by 2012 and to educate 12,000 urban youth. Currently, 96 percent of Cristo Rey graduates go on to college — an astonishing statistic for a network of inner-city high schools.
“There is something really happening here, and I’m really proud it’s happening in Catholic education,” said Stith. “I think traditionally Catholic educators have been innovators. They’ve gotten in and served unmet needs. And I really think Cristo Rey is doing that in the inner city.”