By Bill Henk – Please take a moment and imagine an urban high school.
Almost all of the kids are students of color and live at or below the poverty line. Its freshmen often arrive on day one at-risk of school failure.
Not hard to envision so far, right?
But they soon learn the true value of an education. Students work hard and thrive academically. They somehow become connected to professional networks. And almost miraculously, 100% of them get accepted to two-year or four-year colleges. They graduate with the possibility of changing the trajectory of their families’ lives forever.
Is that a school you’d want in your city?
As it turns out, there are 25 such schools that already exist. They are all part of the Cristo Rey Network of Catholic high schools that collectively serve 7,400 students nationwide in 24 cities, 17 states, and the District of Columbia. Some 96% of the adolescents attending these schools (about 7100) qualify as diverse. What most sets these schools apart are 1500 work-study jobs that help to offset most of the cost of a college preparatory education. The Cristo Rey Network maintains about 40 National University Partners, and for the record, Marquette is one of them.
Finding A Formula for Success
In late July the Crossroads section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel included two distinct op-ed pieces on schooling that give rise to my mentioning now a very relevant feasibility study being done by our College of Education. Specifically we’ve been exploring whether a Cristo Rey high school, with its college preparatory curriculum and corporate work-study program, would be viable in our city.
In one piece, Bill Berezowitz of General Electric and Tim Sheehy of the MMAC made recommendations about K-12 education from a business perspective. In the second, Catholic education pundit, Sean Kennedy, argued that Catholic schools could take a lesson from charter school networks.
Berezowitz and Sheehy rightly stated the following:
- economies now compete and survive on the basis of human talent
- too few of our local high school graduates are prepared for post-secondary education
- employers should take a lead role around setting high educational standards, and
- our city’s future as an economic engine will depend on the quality of schooling all our students receive.
Taking the equation a step further, Kennedy noted that the success of charter schools can be linked in part to adopting longstanding Catholic school elements like structure, discipline, and high expectations. More importantly, he suggests that in order to compete today Catholic schools must demonstrate, like high-performing charter networks, they must represent a good return on investment, with stakeholders seeing their contributions managed skillfully.
Putting these ideas together as one slice of an urban education reform strategy, we might aspire to Catholic secondary schools with high standards that prepare all of their students both for college or advanced studies and the workplace. These schools could tout their value through key metrics like high percentages of college acceptances, enrollments, annual retention rates, degree completion, and employment, as well as powerful individual success stories. Imagine Cristo Rey.
In our yearlong study, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, my Marquette colleague, Jeff Snell, our study director, Andy Stith, and I will ultimately and objectively gauge five factors:
- the interest of families and the community in this type of schooling
- possible school locations and facilities
- sponsorship and governance options
- the likely generosity of Milwaukee’s philanthropic interests, and
- the willingness of the business sector to provide essential job placements.
As researchers, we must refrain from hoping for particular outcomes. Admittedly that might prove challenging in light of how well the 25 existing Cristo Rey high schools, now reportedly the largest such network in the nation, align with the nearly ideal schools described earlier. We must also resist our deep fondness for effectively serving students of color living in poverty and helping them to embrace the true value of an education by literally earning their own. Nobody wins with a false positive.
Almost four months into the study, it’s obvious that our task will be large and complicated. But we believe that making the right recommendations about the school, whether it is ultimately established or not, will be worth our efforts. In the end, it’s for the kids.
For the present, the overarching question remains whether or not the Milwaukee community possesses the appetite for a Cristo Rey school, one that marries the recommendations of the business community with a charter school network mentality.
Time and our study figure to tell.