Friday, June 15, 2007

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Detroit Free Press

Students to work for their tuition at new Catholic school

A new co-ed Catholic high school in Detroit will use innovative partnerships to put students to work at local businesses, with their salaries going to the school to shave thousands of dollars off the cost of each student's tuition.

Students at Detroit Cristo Rey High School, slated to open for the 2008-09 school year, will be required to work five days a month in entry-level jobs at one of 23 partner businesses, including Marygrove College, Henry Ford Health System and the YMCA.

Students' wages will go directly to the school to cover 70% of the tuition costs. It's a model used by a growing network of Cristo Rey schools across the country and will build on momentum in rebounding southwest Detroit.

At most Catholic schools in the area, tuition averages $6,000 to $8,000 a year per student. The out-of-pocket cost to parents for Detroit Cristo Rey would be about $2,200 a year, said Sister Canice Johnson, project director for the school's planning team.

"We know that some families won't be able to pay that," Johnson added, noting that private donations could further subsidize tuition for students who need it.

Detroit Cristo Rey is to operate out of the vacant Holy Redeemer building and will be the first coed Catholic high school in the city since 2005, when Holy Redeemer, East Catholic and St. Martin de Porres closed.

Community residents, area businesses and church leaders have spent nearly two years meeting and conducting a feasibility study before getting the approval to open Detroit Cristo Rey, which is expected to have 100 to 125 students. A new freshmen class will be added each year for the next three years. The school is expected to reach its capacity of 500 students in about five years.

John Foley is president of the Cristo Rey Network, which began with a single school in 1996 and is expected to grow to 19 by August, when seven new schools in urban areas across the country are slated to open. They boast graduation rates that exceed the public school systems in their communities. Chicago's Cristo Rey school, for example, graduated 89% of its students last year, and 96% of Cristo Rey's 2005 graduates went on to college.

"Our students raised close to $15 million toward their own education through working," Foley said. "They are their own fund-raisers. ... Their self-confidence just overflows. They never realized they were capable of holding down such a job."

Across the 12 schools already in the Cristo Rey Network, 63% of students are Hispanic and 35% are African American, Foley said. All are from economically disadvantaged families, who on average have four members and a household income of $33,051 a year, Johnson said.

"Yes, we are an exclusive school. If you make too much money, you can't come here," Johnson said, without specifying a cut-off income.

Mari Kirkendoll, 51, of southwest Detroit hopes to send her twin sons to the school.

"It's a boost to the self-esteem of the community and certainly a ray of hope," Kirkendoll said. "It will prepare them for the real work world. I think it will reinforce the work ethic that I'm trying to instill in them."

She said she was devastated when Holy Redeemer closed.

"I really thought about sending them out of state, but it still would have been a Catholic school," she said. "I just never lost hope that something would come in place of Holy Redeemer, and I also hoped it would be in this community because it is ... representative of the real world."

The school is cosponsored by the Basilian Fathers along with the Sisters, Servants Immaculate Heart of Mary. It grew out of a grassroots effort of religious and community leaders and concerned parents.

The Cristo Rey Network has agreed to give $450,000 over three years in start-up costs to the Detroit school. The school also is seeking financial support from other donors and already has received funding from the Skillman Foundation, the Sisters of Mercy, the Archdiocese of Detroit, the Irene M. and Milton R. Weed Foundation, Save Our Catholic Schools and Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Maria Elena Rodriguez, corporate work-study partner for Detroit Cristo Rey and president of the Mexicantown Community Development Corp., said the school will be an investment in southwest Detroit's future.

"It's a real shot in the arm," she said Thursday. "What's most important is that our kids are not written off, not only in southwest Detroit, but throughout the city."

Contact KRISTEN JORDAN SHAMUS at 313-222-5997 or

Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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