Cristo Rey Baton Rouge High may open in 2016; students work at local businesses to pay tuition _lowres

Photo provided by Tiffany Brown -- The Rev. John Foley spoke to The Rotary Club at Drusilla Seafood in Baton Rouge on Thursday about the Cristo Rey high schools.

Want to persuade inner-city teenagers to enjoy school and generate enough money to pay for a college prep, Jesuit education? Simple. Put them to work.

The Rev. John Foley, a Chicago native and Jesuit priest, said Wednesday the idea of having students work full-time jobs to pay for their education was borne of desperation, not careful research.

“All we knew was it was a way to get some money,” Foley told the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge. “What we didn’t know was what a source of educational innovation it was.”

The school that came out of that idea, Cristo Rey High School in Chicago, has blossomed into a network of 28 private Catholic high schools. More are in the pipeline, including a proposed Cristo Rey Baton Rouge High School, scheduled to open in fall 2016.

The schools recruit students whose family income is less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line. They arrive on average two years behind their peers academically.

After four years, almost all Cristo Rey students graduate high school and about 90 percent go on to college.

According to the network’s latest numbers, 38 percent of Cristo Rey grads complete college, compared to 15 percent of low-income students across the country.

Rotarians who gathered for lunch Wednesday at Drusilla Seafood heard what Foley described as “a violently quick rundown” of how he came to start Cristo Rey High School in his hometown in 1996.

Prior to that time, Foley, who entered the Society of Jesus in 1954, spent most of his professional life in Peru, serving as president of two Jesuit schools in that South American country.

He was summoned back to Chicago with the idea of creating a new high school program for Hispanic students at a dying Jesuit high school west of downtown.

“This is a neighborhood where all the Catholic high schools were moving out and we were moving in,” Foley said.

He said he avoided for a long time trying to figure out how to pay for this new school, but eventually reached out to a creative colleague for thoughts. That colleague came up with the idea of a work-study school.

The model Cristo Rey would develop is for students to spend at least one entire day a week, sometimes two, working for a business. The participating business pays one full-time employee salary, enough to offset the tuition of four students who all work for that sponsoring business.

Pleasing an employer proved a far greater motivation than pleasing a teacher. Foley recalled one Cristo Rey student, asked about the difference between school and work, who put it this way: “At work, you gotta get it right the first time.”

Foley said he was surprised students are fine with having no salary, and don’t complain about having to sign their paycheck over to Cristo Rey.

Those paychecks account for 68 percent of Cristo Rey’s funding nationwide.

Baton Rouge’s proposed Cristo Rey school also plans to take advantage of Louisiana’s tuition donation rebate program and additional fundraising; Cristo Rey has dropped plans to use the state’s private school voucher program. Also, students will pay a small tuition, about $1,000 a year.

Foley downplayed the tuition, calling it a “family contribution” that will vary by the need of the students and their ability to pay.

Whether the Baton Rouge school comes to pass depends on a feasibility study set to be completed in mid-May. Assuming the results are positive, the school’s organizers will apply in late May to the Cristo Rey network for permission to start the school.

Of the 35 company commitments needed, school organizers say they have 15 letters of intent, 10 more verbal commitments and have other interested companies they hope will sign on as well.

Foley also urged employers in the audience to sign on.

“Don’t hire people off the street. Hire our kids; we guarantee them,” Foley said. “We guarantee them because it’s in our vital interest.”

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.