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Cristo Rey's first graduating class: beating the odds

Graduating senior Kiara Machuca shown with her family.
Courtesy of Cristo Rey
Graduating senior Kiara Machuca shown with her family.

Early Thursday morning, as a line of buses disgorged students outside, Kiara Machuca’s family sneaked behind the jumbo screen at the front of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School’s auditorium. They stood, neatly dressed and looking a little intimidated, through a prayer for tornado victims, reminders about a blood drive, deadlines for tests and for signing up for the school canoe trip.

Housekeeping dispensed with, Cristo Rey’s faculty got on with the first of the two main agenda items for the all-school assembly, the naming of the student of the month. After several rounds of applause for students earning honorable mentions, a recorded voice began extolling the still-unnamed winner’s many accomplishments.

After a pause, a photo appeared on the screen. Kiara jumped out of her seat on the auditorium’s left side and raced to the stage as her mother and father, Alicia and Esteban Machuca, led her brother and niece from their hiding place.

“Hi,” Kiara said, beaming as she crossed the stage to greet them. “I’m finally up here!”

Showing the effortless poise of a practiced public speaker, the senior told a funny story about her teachers tricking her into showing up with her hair nicely done, introduced her loved ones and repeated her delight at finally being scholar of the month.

No small feat
At Cristo Rey, this is no small feat. In addition to the academic accomplishment one would expect, it means perfect attendance and performing well at a paying job in the community. All 262 students work five days a month in positions the school helps them to secure with a host of Twin Cities employers.

Next week, Kiara and all 60 of her classmates will graduate from the 4-year-old private school, located just off Lake Street in South Minneapolis. The school’s first graduating class, virtually all are poor minorities.

Typically, barely half of students from similar backgrounds graduate from high school in Minnesota. Yet not only is every member of Cristo Rey’s first class graduating, 58 are headed for college and the other three have enlisted in the military.

Cristo Rey’s goal is for every student to graduate not just from high school but from college. So far, the other schools in the group have a 25-30 percent success rate.

Compare that to an overall graduation rate among all students who enter college of 40 percent. Within Cristo Rey’s demographic, just 10 percent leave with a degree.

The first Jesuit school in Minnesota, Cristo Rey tries to enroll kids who couldn’t otherwise afford a Catholic college-prep school. The idea behind the jobs isn’t so much to help the kids pay their tuition — which they do — as to teach poise and confidence and get them focused on the career possibilities open to those who finish college.

Light-filled, modern building
To that end, the atmosphere in the light-filled, modern building is more like that of a college campus than that of a typical high school. In the halls, groupings of upholstered chairs invite study groups. Bulletin boards display job openings and the photos of students being honored for different accomplishments.

Next year, Cristo Rey will have 305 students. The goal is eventually to serve 400-450 and to provide each with support and mentorship all the way through college.

The school’s first, Kiara’s class presented the school’s administration with some challenges. Through meetings with community groups and presentations in schools throughout the area, Cristo Rey recruited an inaugural freshman class of 97.

Ten more were enrolled over the next four years. More than 40 dropped out, however.

Next year, 57 of the 65 students who enrolled as ninth-graders are expected to graduate. What changed?

'Much more articulate about who we are'
“The biggest thing I attribute that to is we’ve been much more articulate about who we are,” said Principal Jeb Myers. During the application process, students and parents are told that attendance at Cristo Rey will mean hard, hard work.

“I’m not willing to say to 10 percent of our freshmen, ‘You I’m not going to worry about,’” said Myers. “We really focus on the students we can serve.”

When they apply, most students are scoring in the 25 percent to 75 percent range on standardized tests, with a significant majority on the lower end of the range. A few are as low as 5 percent and a very few have learning disabilities.

Many are new to the country and many come from families that haven’t been able to stay in one place for long.

Catching up academically won’t be the only thing on students’ schedules. In Cristo Rey’s Hire4Ed program, four students share a job. One takes Monday, another Tuesday, and so on. Each covers one Friday a month. To make up those hours, Cristo Rey’s school day and year are longer than most.

Other employers include General Mills, Hubbard Broadcasting, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, SuperValu, University of St. Thomas School of Law, Wells Fargo and Xcel Energy.

Emphasis on core subjects
Students are pushed hard in core subjects, and there are few electives. If families wonder why their kids aren’t getting, say tech ed or business, they are asked how they would feel if their son or daughter were instead to help maintain the Spanish-language portion of Best Buy’s website or negotiate trucking contracts with Somali drivers at a transportation company.

“We tell them, ‘Right now you have the skills to go to work and you can have fun doing it,’” said Myers.

The first Cristo Rey school was created in 1995 by then-Chicago Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Bernadine, who challenged the Jesuits to find a way to serve impoverished Latino immigrants. The first school was so successful that in 2001 a network was established. Today it boasts 24 schools nationwide.

Cristo Rey has a lot in common with many other so-called beat-the-odds schools. Most have a strong culture and a clearly articulated vision and take advantage of even the smallest, most symbolic opportunities to reinforce it.

For example, students must swipe their ID when they arrive in the morning. To get to the scanner, they have to first shake hands and make eye contact with staff.

Uniforms and Dale Carnegie skills
Tidy uniforms are a given, and everyone takes a Dale Carnegie class. Students who need help with job performance or who aren’t called back by an employer get tutoring in workplace decorum.

When a student slips, staff concentrate not on their infraction but on the end goal, said Myers: “Why are you here? What do you want to be when you are older?”

“We really try to [concentrate] on, ‘You made a mistake, now get back on track,’” he said.

After the assembly where Kiara’s award was passed out, Junior Dana Fernandez lead a tour for a group of corporate visitors who had come to watch another student, Andrea Narvaez-Zambrano, receive the Hire4Ed employee of the month award.

Andrea Narvaez-Zambrano with WIPFLI co-workers, left to right: Laura Freas, Kristen Hartung and Christina Fasbender.
Courtesy of Cristo Rey
Andrea Narvaez-Zambrano with WIPFLI co-workers, left to right: Laura Freas, Kristen Hartung and Christina Fasbender.

The three well-dressed women from WIPFLI, a CPA and business consulting firm, towered over Fernandez, who appeared wholly at ease describing the activities under way in each wing and fielding questions about her job at Lawson.

Prodded to look for networking opportunities
Because Cristo Rey’s kids lack the natural networking ties wealthier students take for granted, they are prodded to look for opportunities. One of Fernandez’s classmates parlayed his junior-year job into a stint caddying at the Minikahda Club, where he collected a stack of business cards he’s now busily working his way through.

Still, teachers have to work hard to keep kids’ eyes on the doors a college degree will open. Cristo Rey’s kids often come from families where the steady paycheck from even an entry-level job is so welcome and college so unknown that at first, staying in school for another four years doesn’t always seem like the obvious plan.

On June 10, Cristo Rey’s first graduation will begin with a Mass at which three more awards will be handed out. In addition to recognizing the students with the most outstanding academic and workplace records, staff will hand out a citizenship award to the best servant-leader.

Diplomas will be handed out the next day, Saturday, June 11, at 2 p.m. in the school’s gym. There may only be 60 grads, but 1,500 people are expected to attend. Not only is each student welcome to invite as many friends and family members as they wish, many of their corporate supervisors will be there.

Imaculee Ilibaqiza to speak at graduation
The students asked Rwandan genocide survivor Imaculee Ilibaqiza to speak; many heard her talk at the University of St. Thomas as freshmen.

Like everyone she’ll share the stage with, Kiara Machuca has a pretty good idea what will happen next. In the fall, she’s headed to Santa Clara University in California on a full scholarship.

In her junior year, Kiara worked for Ryan Companies. She did well on the job, according to her teachers, but was interested in the health-care industry and set her sights on working for Medtronic.

Using the job-hunting skills she’d learned at school, last summer she scored a position there on her own. Her supervisors were so impressed that they convinced her to apply to college in a city where she could keep working for the corporation.

While she’s in college, Kiara will continue to receive support from Cristo Rey. Because no one in her family has gone to a university, a teacher will step in. He or she will be in close contact, listening for signs that Kiara is finding ways to fit in and juggle her obligations.

In the end, Cristo Rey hopes she’ll be back, but in a wholly different role.

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Comments (6)

"Typically, barely half of students from similar backgrounds graduate from high school in Minnesota. Yet not only is every member of Cristo Rey’s first class graduating, 58 are headed for college and the other three have enlisted in the military."

Wait a second. If, as you point out, more than 40 percent of the class dropped out, how can you say that every member graduated? If you are only going to count kids who haven't dropped out, isn't the graduation rate going to be 100 percent at every school? If you are going to calculate the graduation rates for schools the same way, the graduation rate at this school is no better for kids of similar backgrounds at other schools.

You note that after the first class the dropout rate has gone done. I would note that the number of students enrolled dropped as well, which would suggest that the school is being more selective in who is accepts. Which is part of the problem in comparing schools like this to other schools. Christo Ray can take the kids it wants - which are usually kids with motivated parents - and can pass on the more challenging kids that public schools can't turn away. And then it can fix any mistakes later on, and presto - 100 percent graduation rate!

I am happy for the students, teachers, and parents who have made Cristo Rey Jesuit School a success. I am also eager to see the techniques that seem to make this school work so well being replicated elsewhere.

At the same time, I am concerned that the success of yet another exceptional private, parochial school will be used yet again to attack and defund secular public schools, with the insinuation that public schoolteachers are lazy or prejudiced against the poor, that monocultural schools work better multicultural ones, or that mandatory prayer or uniforms have magical powers that cause young people to succeed rather than fail.

I believe the real magical power is this: Every student at Cristo Rey Jesuit School who doesn't shape up, gets shipped out. And this is obviously made clear to every new student and to his or her parents or guardians as well. That is one thing that public schools are not allowed to do, or should not be allowed to do. It goes by the name of cherry-picking, and no amount of self-praise or ostentatious piety can cover up what this really is: a solution that works in part because it excludes. No school that receives one penny of public funding, directly or indirectly, should be allowed to cherry-pick its students, or to expect that the students that it expels shouldn't be counted when the school is evaluated - which amounts to exactly the same thing.

I am not reassured by the growing retention rate at Cristo Rey Jesuit School. How long is the waiting list for students who want to enroll in this school, I wonder, and how many don't get in? This, too, is a indicator of cherry-picking, because students who don't get in to a school in the first place are students who won't fail there later. That makes the school look good, but maybe it wouldn't look so good if it were big enough to take in more poor students than it unavoidably shuts out.

I am not accusing the architects, supervisors, or teachers of Cristo Rey Jesuit School of shutting students out on purpose. Obviously, this is an unintended effect of the school's small size. But we should all be smart enough to realize that the school's apparent success is partly an effect of its small size, as well.

I have to say that I am growing tired of articles about outstanding individuals and exceptional small groups of individuals who "beat the odds." What we need to do, as a society, is to improve those odds - not only for the benefit of a heroic few, but for the benefit of everyone. If this is our goal, we should not uncritically choose as our model a school that works partly by exclusion.

I'm glad schools like this exist, even if they have unfair advantages over traditional inner city public schools, and
even if the model doesn't scale (i.e. some students won't have the family resources to keep the student motivated for what sounds like an extremely demanding curriculum). For those that can handle it, upward social mobility sounds almost inevitable.

To the previous commenter's concerns - our tax dollars aren't going to this school, right? So, if anything, schools like this should allow districts to commit more money per pupil by taking some that couldn't otherwise afford it out of the pool. Sounds like the opposite of defunding to me.

I am growing tired of the soft bigotry of low expectations reflected in Minneapolis and poisoning the Progressyve Community. We get it, you are smart and the government needs to help those poor Others who are so, well, Other

The point of my comment, and if I can speak for him, Eric's comment, isn't that there shouldn't be schools like this. The point is that you need to judge schools like this by the same standards you judge other schools. And if you do that, Christo Rey hasn't "beaten the odds." Rather, it has performed similarly to public schools, and to the extent it performed better, that performance occurs as a result of being able to self-select. The criticism isn't of Christo Rey - it is of Ms. Hawkins' analysis-free puff piece about the school.

David, why is it low expectations to apply the same scrutiny to both public and private schools? Do you think we should call something a success when it isn't, just because its a private school? Are you willing to write off all the kids who wash out of Christo Rey? It sounds like the only "soft bigotry" here is yours.

Reading over my previous comments, I perceive something wrong. I believe it was my tone. Didn't I come across as a storm cloud raining on somebody's well-deserved celebration!

My rancor was the result of accumulated gripes, not with Beth Hawkins's work particularly, but with the steady journalistic focus on one school at a time - either as a failure or as a success. I believe this focus is limited, that it misses the forest for the trees, and I would like to see more comparative and long-term studies. But was I wrong to complain about locally-focused snapshots, like Hawkins's article?

Maybe I was wrong, and maybe I was unfair, too. I approached the article expecting something that can only come from a long, detailed, wonkish, scholarly monograph. And I overlooked the things that articles like Hawkins's are really good for.

Part of what makes students succeed is instilling in them the belief that they can. Part of what helps them to believe this is to see others like themselves who succeed. The article I could not stop criticizing for failing to solve the problems with our nation's educational system has undoubtedly already done good work that I did not appreciate when I first read it: It showed what poor students can do, and I do not doubt that it will inspire others to succeed as well. Maybe these others are a small group of people, but why should we be discouraged? After all, we can't save everybody at once, can we? Sometimes, progress is slow, and has to be, because the fact is we really don't have the answers to our pedagogical problems. At such times, we have to save the world one child at a time, one school at a time. And every little bit of inspiration helps.

Which techniques used at Cristo Rey Jesuit School are the real secret to its success, and which can be most effectively used elsewhere? I don't know. But I shouldn't let that spoil anyone's good mood about the results.

Only research and further experience will show which pedagogical techniques can or cannot be used elsewhere, or even whether the same techniques are appropriate for all students. (I am biased in favor of multicultures and against monocultures, but my bias may be wrong - some children may learn better in monocultures.) But journalistic snapshots can also inspire research. For example, it occurs to me that the vocational training aspect of Cristo Rey Jesuit School would be a welcome addition to many other schools, for many reasons. Most important among them would be the removal of the stigma that academically inclined people have often, consciously or unconsciously, imposed upon manual labor. For too long, students who choose a "vo-tech track" in high school have been looked down upon by their college-prep peers - and by the society at large. In this era of jobless academics, we need to revise this prejudice.

We also need to insure that people who work with their hands be adequately paid, that their workplace be unionized and their rights respected, that their jobs not be outsourced to countries where people work under slave conditions, et cetera, but that really goes beyond the reach and responsibility of our schools. This is where not the schools, but the rest of society needs to buckle down and get serious about its homework.