“Cristo Rey’s timeless lesson” by Thomas P. O’Neill, III, Chairman of the Board of Trustees

(This editorial recently appeared in the Boston Herald and can be seen here.)

For the first time in many of our lives, poverty is on the march in America, reversing the steady upward climb that so many of us — children or grandchildren of immigrants — saw as the realization of the American Dream. The solution remains what it was for my grandparents: Educate poor children so they can lift their families to a better world.

According to the Census Bureau, 15.1 percent of all Americans are living in poverty, about the same rate as 1993. In 2000, 11.3 percent lived in poverty — still too high, but not as dire as today. The number of Americans on food stamps has increased by 74 percent since 2007, and current projections are that 50 percent of all children will be on food stamps at some point before they reach age 18. While food stamps are not the only metric of a forlorn future, the picture looks grim.

The best way to lift people out of poverty is to provide them with a high-quality education — easy to say, hard to do, especially for new Americans facing a language barrier across a gulf of poverty. We are failing far too many of these children.

Nationwide, about a quarter of the students who enter ninth grade won’t graduate high school, which translates into more than 1 million students who fail to earn a diploma each year. These young people are more likely to require public services and more likely to face incarceration at some point than those who graduate high school. This isn’t an issue of laziness or lack of smarts. Students who drop out say that they found school to be boring, and, in their view, did not know an adult who cared if they stayed in school.

About 15 years ago, the Jesuits developed a model that combines business and education and has had success keeping thousands of these students in school and lifting them out of poverty. The Jesuits were troubled to learn that more than 50 percent of young people on Chicago’s southwest side were dropping out of high school. They listened to hundreds of parents in this Mexican-American enclave: “Quiero que mi hijo llegue a ser un profesional.” I want my child to become a professional, they told the Jesuits. This meant they wanted their children to go to college. The Jesuits responded, and in 1996 established a private, Catholic, college preparatory school called Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.

Every student worked five days per month in corporate Chicago to pay a significant part of the cost of their education and to gain real world experience. The program did more than finance an education. It engaged students in their learning, helped them make connections between the classroom and the business world, and motivated them to go to college.

Word of the school’s success spread. Venture capitalist B.J. Cassin visited the Chicago school in 2000 and established a foundation to help replicate this model across the country. Cassin hired Jeff Thielman, a Jesuit-educated lawyer turned educator, to run his foundation. Armed with funds from Cassin, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, Thielman oversaw the start-up of 24 Cristo Rey schools nationwide that now serve 6,900 high-poverty young people.

Data shows that Cristo Rey alumni are entering and completing college at higher rates than their African-American and Latino peers.

Massachusetts is home to two Cristo Rey schools, Notre Dame High School of Lawrence and Cristo Rey Boston High School. Thielman now leads the Boston school. Both schools, launched in 2004, have placed 100 percent of their recent graduates in college. Students work at 170 of the best known companies in the state, building resumes, contacts and experience that will have an immeasurable impact on their lives.

As we contemplate how to address the nation’s troubling poverty rates, it’s worth taking a look at the Cristo Rey schools. Business leaders and educators are on to something that is attacking poverty at its roots.

Thomas P. O’Neill III is chairman/CEO of O’Neill & Associates and chairman of the board of trustees of Cristo Rey Boston High School.
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