Program Allows Cristo Rey College Prep Students Work to Pay Tuition


On Chicago’s Lower West Side, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a college prep school, may look like any other private school, but there is one important difference — the students there earn approximately 70% of their own tuition. And even though the students have a quiet maturity about them, all of the kids are facing an uphill battle.

Eric Schulzke of Deseret News says most of the students’ parents are not high school graduates, most of the students speak little to no English at home, many live in real poverty, and most students start high school reading two grade levels behind their average peers.

Once a week, all students, even 14-year-old freshmen, are driven to major corporations in the Chicago area where they work for a full day. Their work environments are white-collar and most do entry level professional work such as clerical and bookkeeping assignments.

“It helps better prepare them to go on to college and go on to their careers,” said Kris Donnelly, the executive director of the program. “They get to learn technical skills in a way that a normal student doesn’t.”

This means they have only four days of school, so time is made up by being offered fewer electives, having a school day that runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and attending school 10 months out of the year. Their “jobs” cut what would be an $11,000 or $12,000 annual tuition to $3,000 or lower which, for most of the families, is paid by a need-based scholarship.

After opening its doors in 1996, the school soon became a model for others and experienced growth. Scattered around the Midwest, Northeast, with a few sites in the South and West, the Cristo Rey network now has 30 high schools with schools in Milwaukee and Dallas starting up this year.

Students at Cristo Rey schools across the nation earned $44 million in tuition in 2013-2014 and 90% of the corporate supporters return each year. The schools’ students are graduating and entering college at a higher rate than their demographic peers and earn college degrees twice as often as other low-income high-school graduates and 30% more than all high school graduates nationwide.

Each student is given a day from Monday to Thursday and one Friday a month to work a 9:00am to 4:30pm day. Students team up in groups of four and take turns working at the same position without missing any class. For this, companies agree to pay the school $30,000 per team.

Reyna Tejada and Yoko Vue, both high-school students reporting for the Star Tribune, quoted Donnelly:

“When our students start interviewing for scholarships for college, they interview really well because they are mature and they have thought things through differently, so I think they get an advantage in those areas.”

In Philadelphia, 450 students attend the independent Catholic school Cristo Rey Philadelphia, which is open to all faiths, in the Logan area of the city. The 90 top employers in Philadelphia include non-profits and government agencies such as Comcast GlaxoSmithKline, Wawa, the zoo, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the mayor’s office. Other companies fund not only their own jobs, but pay for non-profits and government agencies to “hire” students.

The Philly Voice’s Kevin C. Shelly says the schools are the result of the efforts of a Jesuit priest who taught in Peru but later moved back to his home in Chicago. His goal there was to find a way to create a college prep school in a poor section of the city and a way to fund it.

One of the fun days at Cristo Rey is “Signing Day” which is part pep rally, part mock sports team draft day that matches up the students and the organizations where they will work. The rally includes videos, T-shirts, a drum line, and dancers. The Philadelphia school’s founder and president John McConnell adds:

“[The students have] never been around college educated people. Now they are working in Center City in offices filled with college-educated employees and seeing themselves working in those institutions after college.”