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Business elite back alternative high school: Catholic college-prep Cristo Rey puts students to work to earn and learn

January 15, 2007

Every other month, it seems, someone announces another promising alternative to the city's public schools and their low achievement levels and high dropout rates.

If it isn't Indianapolis Public Schools announcing another specialty school within a high school, it's a new charter school anointed by Mayor Bart Peterson-a number now approaching 20.

So one could be forgiven for being a bit cynical about these schools, as parents who can afford to continue to leave the city for better schools.

But wait, say the Sisters of Providence, sponsors of Providence Cristo Rey High School, set to open this fall in the poor neighborhood of Haughville-we're different.

They point to the 12 Cristo Rey schools already open around the country, known as the Cristo Rey Network, which last year boasted a dropout rate of less than 3 percent. The network also claims that 99 percent of its 2006 class was admitted to two- or four-year colleges.

Of those who have graduated from its flagship school, in Chicago, 82 percent are said to have either graduated from college or are currently enrolled.

But what's perhaps most unusual about the network is its list of backers in Indianapolis, not the least of which is Eli Lilly and Co. Among 20 others is law firm Baker & Daniels, Duke Realty Corp. and One America Financial Partners Inc.

"I think this reflects a desire on the part of the business community to do something constructive to improve the standard of education for the youth of our community. Plus, Cristo Rey is a proven model," said John C. Lechleiter, Lilly's president and chief operating officer.

Key to the Cristo Rey model is that students work five days a month at corporate sponsors, like Lilly, which will pay about 70 percent of their tuition to attend the Catholic college preparatory school.

Cristo Rey administrators recently picked the first 136 students-the class of 2011. Students often come from families with annual incomes of less than $17,000.

"If you can afford to go elsewhere," said Anne O'Dea, director of institutional advancement in Indianapolis, "then we want you to go elsewhere."

Charity it ain't, though.

For one, students are expected to work heartily one day a week at the sponsoring employer. One local law firm that agreed to sponsor students was adamant on that point, O'Dea recalled. "They said, 'We expect the work to be done.'"

Even before students step into the work site, they will receive three weeks of "boot camp" on work expectations and essential job skills.

"The moment they walk into the corporate headquarters, the welfare mentality breaks down. They have to work," O'Dea added.

Employers pay $25,000 for each job, which is shared by four students. Split four ways, each student gets $6,250 annually toward the $8,500 tuition per school year.

The balance will come from financial aid and from parents, leaving most families to shoulder about $1,000 of the tuition cost each year. But that, O'Dea argues, helps keep the parent or parents invested in the success of the child.

Britnee Vaughn, an eighth-grader at IPS Shortridge, who will start at Providence in the fall, said she's not taking the opportunity for granted.

"I definitely did not want to pass something like this up," Vaughn said. She wants to be a criminal investigator later in life. She's been told she'll probably work in a crime laboratory.

Working "is really going to help me. The academic part is really essential, as well, but it is important to see what it's going to be like [in a career field]. It's ... being able to get ready for my career and to get an understanding of what it's like."

She's seen plenty of TV crime shows, "but that's TV."

Vaughn said the high academic achievement of students at other Cristo Rey schools, and the high percentage that go on to college, was also compelling.

"That's what's interesting, too. That means this school is working hard," she said.

Lilly's Lechleiter said the results elsewhere were compelling to local businesses.

"I can honestly say that I have not talked to a single business owner or corporate executive who isn't willing to consider sponsored employment of Cristo Rey students," Lechleiter said.

Lechleiter became familiar with the Cristo Rey concept a few years ago while serving on the board of Indianapolis' Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School.

Also on the board was the Rev. John Foley, who founded the network in Chicago a decade ago with his Jesuit brothers. Their first school was in a Chicago neighborhood of mostly Mexican immigrants.

Lechleiter said that later he was approached by Annette "Mickey" Lentz, director of Catholic education, and by the Rev. Joseph Schaedel, both of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, about starting a Cristo Rey School. Lechleiter and Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp, president of the school, then worked to get local business support.

Foley's Chicago experiment has expanded to 12 schools, with a half-dozen to open this year, including the one in Indianapolis.

Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a $6 million grant to the network.

The Indianapolis school is still trying to line up at least 75 more employers willing to take on students over the next four years as enrollment grows.
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