If you’re a teenager with limited resources in Boston, you have a lot to overcome if you want a better life.
First, the statistics. More than a fifth of American children live in poverty, the second worst of all advanced economies. Mexico has a slightly greater percentage of children living in poverty than we do; Greece, France, and Spain all have about half has many children in poverty. Massachusetts does better than the national average with one in seven (or 15%) of children living in poverty, but in Boston’s Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan neighborhoods, where many of our students live, 42% of children live in poverty, the densest cluster of childhood poverty in the state, according to The Boston Foundation.
The way out of poverty, of course, is an education. That means completing high school and earning a college degree. Going to college for many young people, especially those with few resources, means taking on debt. In fact, student debt surpassed $1 trillion a few years ago, meaning Americans have more educational debt than credit card debt.
Our job at Cristo Rey Boston High School is to prepare very poor students, who have not had a strong K-8 education, for college. If you walk our halls, it may look like the work we do is easy. Our students follow a strict dress code, they’re orderly and polite, and they straighten their ties, fix their blouses and greet visitors warmly. They look very put together.
But, the counseling reports I read on our students tell a much different story. This past month I took a particular interest in our team’s efforts to keep students in the school and on the path to a successful life.
I read the profiles of students that showed a much different reality than is seen walking the halls of Cristo Rey Boston. One student was born with morphine in her blood and spent her early childhood bouncing around the homes of different family members before ultimately being placed in foster care. Another student visits her father, who is incarcerated for drug related offenses, on the weekends while struggling to keep up with her academics during the week. A young male student is charged with the responsibility of being the “man” of the house, taking care of his sick mother while assisting in raising his nieces and nephews who live with the family.
For these students and countless others at Cristo Rey Boston, the challenge of successfully completing high school and moving on to college goes far beyond the walls of the classroom. One student recently wanted to leave Cristo Rey and go to a public school. Why? Well, it was easier to run than to stay at Cristo Rey and work hard. Another student also recently contemplated transferring to public school. The daughter of a heroin user, she struggles with anxiety and was tempted by an easier path. Other students are attracted to the instant gratification that comes from earning a weekly paycheck, working long hours at local grocery stores.
While a few of these students may ultimately succumb to the daily challenges they face and leave Cristo Rey Boston, many realize that staying at Cristo Rey, where people care about them, is the best option. Our dedicated staff work tirelessly to help students realize their potential and believe in their ability to succeed. It’s not uncommon for our principal and support staff to visit families at their homes or even show up at students’ jobs in order to speak with them. The conversations are raw and emotional, but in the end students often realize that the team at Cristo Rey Boston want what’s best for them. We are often able to convince students that getting grades up, completing high school, and eventually going to college is the best choice.
It’s interesting to watch policymakers debate ways to reduce child poverty and student debt. Me, I like the view right here on the ground, where some of the most dedicated people you’ll ever meet work hard for a lot less than they would make elsewhere to help kids who had the bad luck to be born into poverty. We will not save every student, but our model – strong academics, an extraordinary opportunity to work in a Greater Boston business and see the endless possibilities of an education, the tremendous love and support of our staff, and an aggressive college counseling effort that ensures our graduates will leave college with as little debt as possible – keeps our students moving towards a better and brighter future.