The Why of Cristo Rey Boston

In his famous 2009 Ted Talk, author Simon Sinek says people know what they do each day. Some know how they do it. Few, however, know or think about why they do what they do.

He tells companies that people buy or support the “why”. Those driven by purpose succeed, and those who are driven by profits or self-interest alone, often fail.

The “why” of the Cristo Rey movement was the experience of the Jesuits on the southwest side of Chicago in the early 1990s. Thousands of urban young people were dropping out of under-performing high schools. Mexican-American mothers came to meetings with the Jesuits and said : “Yo quiero que mi hijo sea un profesional.” I want my son or daughter to become a professional. That meant college, and the Jesuits set up a unique college prep school called Cristo Rey.

Today there are 28 Cristo Rey schools serving 9,000 students in 19 states, and the schools have 8,200 alumni, most of whom entered college after graduation. The movement grew because it had a purpose.

Fr. John Foley, S.J., the founder of the Cristo Rey movement and a close friend, said once that humility is a requirement for success in our schools whether you are a counselor, board member, teacher, school President, or facilities manager. He said the task of educating a young person who is one to two grades below level academically in 9th grade to the point where they are ready for college and work is an extraordinary undertaking. You can’t be successful unless you’re humbled by it.

At Cristo Rey Boston, every staff member, Board member and volunteer plays a small roll in helping students go from learning basic skills in 9th grade to a score of 3 or better on an Advanced Placement exam in their senior year. No one person in the Cristo Rey movement is dominant. All of us together play a small part in helping each student. When I was on the staff of the first Cristo Rey school in Chicago in the late 1990s, Fr. Foley used to say: “It’s not about us. It’s about our students.”

The “why” of Cristo Rey Boston will begin this coming Monday when 140 freshmen and transfer students come to school to begin Foundations, a two-week training program that prepares them for school and work. We’ll succeed with these young people if we allow ourselves to be humbled by the task before us and if we never lose sight of why we do our work.

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