Cristo Rey considers starting school in Baton Rouge

Cristo Rey, a nationwide network of 28 Catholic high schools, known for arranging once-a-week jobs for its inner-city students to offset tuition costs, is talking to local business leaders to see if Baton Rouge is ready for such a school.

If so, the new school would likely open in fall 2016 with about 125 ninth-graders, growing a grade at a time until it ultimately has 400 to 600 students. It would be Baton Rouge’s fifth Catholic high school.

Former Southern University Chancellor James Llorens leads a 25-member feasibility committee set to hold its first meeting in early September. The committee, made up of Baton Rouge business community leaders, is seeking initial commitments from at least 35 area businesses. The businesses would pay tuition — in lieu of a salary — for students who work for them and attend the proposed school, tentatively called Cristo Rey Baton Rouge High School.

“It will be a unique addition to the educational opportunities in Baton Rouge, and there should be strong support for it,” said Llorens, a product of Catholic schools and a parent of children who attended Catholic schools.

The feasibility study has the blessings of Bishop Robert Muench and Melanie Verges, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. The diocese played host Aug. 20 to a “friendraiser” to help connect businesses and community leaders with the proposed school.

Cristo Rey was started in 1996 as a way of reviving a dying Jesuit high school in inner city Chicago. The idea was to prepare young men and women for work and career by giving them jobs while they’re still in school, preparing for college.

The Jesuit order went on to form new high schools in Portland, Los Angeles and Denver. Over time it has brought in other Catholic orders to run new schools, or failing that, it has asked the local dioceses to run them.

Cristo Rey is now operating or launching high schools in big cities across the U.S. and plans to have 40 schools in operation by 2020. It has been the subject of many media profiles, including a 2004 segment on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Along the way, Cristo Rey caught the attention of New Schools for Baton Rouge, a 2-year-old group best known for recruiting and supporting a handful of charter schools that recently opened in Baton Rouge.

New Schools was particularly attracted to the post-secondary success of its graduates. Every Christo Rey graduate is accepted to a two- or four-year college and about 90 percent, according to the suburban Washington, D.C.-based National Student Clearinghouse, go on to enroll in college within two years.

Cristo Rey’s six-year college completion rate is about 40 percent, a little higher than the national average for all students, but that’s based on just four of its schools. Georgetown University has really taken to the program; all of the Cristo Rey students it’s accepted so far have graduated. The Dell Foundation recently gave the network a grant to better track its graduates.

Chris Meyer, president and CEO of New Schools for Baton Rouge, said his group supports a wide variety of schools. The organization’s focus is on expanding options for students in low-performing Baton Rouge public schools.

“We’re agnostic as to the governance of a school, so we don’t care if it’s charter, public or private,” Meyer said.

Cristo Rey normally sets up shop in bigger cities. Although smaller, Baton Rouge has one big advantage: Louisiana’s publicly funded private school voucher program. Currently, children using vouchers in Baton Rouge means as much as $8,900 apiece in taxpayer money.

“Without the voucher program, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Brian Melton, director of school growth for Cristo Rey.

The proposed Baton Rouge high school is already cleared for opening, an important step when it comes to vouchers.

Cristo Rey obtained approval in June as a nonpublic school from the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. BESE approved the school, even though it’s still just a proposal and its future is uncertain. Kevin Calbert, a spokesman for BESE, explained that its rules do not restrict BESE to approving only schools already in operation and that the board has approved prospective nonpublic schools in the past.

Louisiana law bars new private schools that are within two years of BESE approval from having more than 20 percent of their students collecting vouchers, leaving 80 percent who have to pay tuition during that time period. The provision was intended to discourage fly-by-night private schools that accept taxpayer money but offer little service in return.

Getting BESE approval in advance as Cristo Rey is doing, however, avoids that two-year penalty box. When its Baton Rouge school arrives at its planned opening in fall 2016, those two years will have passed. Consequently, it will be free to enroll voucher students without the 20 percent restriction.

Vouchers, however, won’t cover all of the school’s expenses. Melton said it’s anticipating needing at least $13,000 per child to cover its operations, plus additional costs such as fixing up whatever school building Cristo Rey eventually settles on.

What vouchers don’t cover, the school network is planning to raise mostly from the participating businesses, roughly $7,000 per student. To get cleared for opening, it will need to collect a good chunk of that, at least $2.5 million, in advance.

“We want that up front, because if you open a school without a sound financial platform you’re asking for trouble,” Melton said. “We’ve learned that. We’ve made plenty mistakes. We don’t want to make the same mistake again.”

Cristo Rey’s model is that students spend at least one day a week, sometimes two, working for a business. The participating business pays one $28,000 employee salary, enough to offset the tuition of four students. The four students will then all work at that sponsoring business.

Llorens said businesses are getting real work from students in the bargain.

“We’re not asking you for money,” he said. “We’re asking you to give them a job opportunity while we’re educating them.”

Melton said Cristo Rey students work only in “white-collar jobs” such as law firms and hospitals.

“They’re not gonna change the sheets in a hotel. They’re not gonna serve food in a restaurant. They’re gonna get a life skill,” he said.

New Orleans is home already to a Jesuit high school, as well as several other Catholic high schools. But Melton said the employers there favor the service industries more so than in Baton Rouge.

“Don’t think the economy is ripe there for a school because the jobs we’re going to get there are more hospitality, tourism kinds of jobs,” Melton said.

Melton promised an intense academic experience for perspective students with heavy doses of the core subjects using a Common Core-aligned curriculum adopted throughout the Cristo Rey network. That level of schooling, along with working in a business every fourth school day, makes for long school days.

“It’s a hard thing to get six years of school in four years with 25 percent less time,” he said.

While Cristo Rey schools offer some sports, they don’t offer football and, conversely, have limited options for advance placement courses, at least early on, he said.

“The ones that want to go here, the high-character students, the ones who are not necessarily the brightest but have high potential, that’s our sweet spot,” Melton said.

Melton said that about 57 percent of its students who start in ninth grade make it to graduation four years later. The bulk of those who leave do so for family reasons, followed by academic and disciplinary problems, he said.

The smallest category it tracks, about 4 percent, are students who have been fired twice from their jobs, he said. Employers, however, rate 94 percent of Cristo Rey students as meeting or exceeding their expectations. And 90 percent of employers stick with the program each year,” he said.

“This is not a job-shadowing program,” he said. “This is real work for real pay.”

Cristo Rey students are having some success in college, despite a relatively low average ACT score of about 18.5.

“Our students are doing well in college,” Melton said. “They’ve been able to connect the dots.”