Cristo Rey Jesuit builds leaders through work and study

| Michael P. Kassner | August 8, 2017 | 0 Comments
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School President Jeb Myers has worked for the school since it opened in 2007. The school received an award from the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce earlier this year. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

On a sultry July afternoon, most schools are quiet. That’s not the case at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis. Summer Bridge — where students in the new ninth-grade class spend three weeks learning their role in the school’s Corporate Work Study Program — is in full swing.

The importance of CWSP cannot be overstated. The success of each student and the school depends on it. And if community accolades for CWSP are an indication, Cristo Rey Jesuit’s recent honor as Non-Profit of the Year at the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Best in Business Award ceremony is telling.

The award committee’s 12 members were “impressed by the success of the CWSP, the number of participating companies, the depth of the student academic experience, the communities served and the extended support system,” said Christine Levens, vice president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, in an email. “They were also interested in how this job-experience program provides Cristo Rey Jesuit with an additional revenue stream that can be leveraged for future growth.”

Referring to the school’s mission to serve “under-resourced” students, who in the Twin Cities are disproportionately black and Latino, Levens added: “We’re challenged by education gaps in our communities of color. Cristo Rey Jesuit is helping bridge those gaps. Companies choosing to invest in the school are investing in the future.”

Cristo Rey Jesuit President Jeb Myers said he was honored to accept the school’s award in March.

“We are pleased to be recognized for our growing enrollment and high rate of student retention,” said Myers, who has worked in multiple roles at the school since its founding, assuming its presidency in 2015.

All ‘the best and brightest’

The south Minneapolis Catholic college-preparatory school opened in 2007, intent on serving families and educating students in the Jesuit tradition. Its students help pay for their education through CWSP.

Myers likes to introduce himself as the school braggart, adding it’s a title he’s proud to hold. To illustrate, Myers recalled a meeting two years ago between the school board and students in the graduating class. One board member chided him for stacking the deck with the best and the brightest of the class. Smiling in his recollection, Myers said he told the board member, “In this school, we consider every student to be the best and the brightest. In fact, half of our seniors are taking the AP calculus exam today.”

The concept behind CWSP was conceived in 1995. Members of the Society of Jesus in Chicago were tasked with finding a way to provide Catholic secondary education for impoverished immigrant populations. Realizing that families could not afford private schooling, the Jesuits decided a work-study program — CWSP — would be the best solution.

CWSP contains both a student component and a corporate one. Students work one day per week from mid-August to mid-June. They either share a job or work in different departments, learn professional etiquette, develop technical skills and earn more than 50 percent of their education costs.

In return for putting the students to work, companies pay Cristo Rey Jesuit and provide students access to supervisors and mentors. The importance of the supervisor-student relationship cannot be overstressed, school leaders said. For one thing, supervisors provide needed guidance on how to act in an office environment.

Over the past four years, 97 percent of the senior class has graduated and 100 percent of graduates were accepted to college. Meanwhile, the retention rate of ninth-grade students has been above 90 percent.

By comparison, in Minneapolis Public Schools, 82 percent of students graduated in four years in 2016, although the number is lower for black and Hispanic students at 65 percent.

Administrators at Cristo Rey Jesuit continue to track students through college and note that 80 percent are enrolled in or have graduated from college.

Last year, the school enrolled 445 students and anticipates to increase that by 30 this academic year. Of them, 99 percent identify as racial minorities, with 84 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African or African-American, and 5 percent Native American or other ethnicity. Ninety percent of students are eligible for free or reduced cost lunch.

Brandon Williams is among the alumni who help with Summer Bridge. He graduated in 2015 and attends Augsburg College in Minneapolis on a full scholarship, with an eye towards becoming an attorney. In addition to working with Summer Bridge, he volunteers to help kids with math and offers advice on what it’s like to work for major corporations.

It’s advice Williams received, since his story is not unlike the students he tutors. Like them, he grew up in tough neighborhoods under less-than-ideal conditions. Williams also admits the learning curve at Cristo Rey Jesuit is steep and expectations are high. Still, he believes it’s worth it.

“Much of my life was outside my reach,” explained Williams, who as a student worked for Dorsey & Whitney law firm in Minneapolis. “God, through Cristo Rey, changed all that.”

High expectations

Dorsey & Whitney is among 110 CWSP business partners. Others include General Mills, US Bank, Medtronic, Ryan Company, and United Health Group.

In a promotional video for CWSP on the school’s website, Steve Lucke, a Dorsey & Whitney partner, said that Cristo Rey Jesuit students who have worked at the law firm, “are bright, they’re a lot of fun, they’re hard workers, and — I think most important — they really appreciate the opportunity that this program gives them to get ahead.” His colleague added that the firm relies on the students’ work, and she sees their CWSP student building relationships in the firm.

“When I talk to people in other businesses about this, [it] is how the other law firms and businesses need these kids if they’re going to succeed in the 21st century. And this is our opportunity and our chance to participate in our future,” Lucke said in the video. “The Corporate Work Study at Cristo Rey is, in my view, the best deal in town for businesses and law firms like ours.”

One of the soft skills students gain through their CWSP experience is “code switching,” what Jessica Cass, Cristo Rey Jesuit marketing and communications manager, describes as the ability to converse with different groups — fellow workers one minute, friends the next — in an appropriate manner.

“Code switching is not limited to students,” added Cass. “Teachers and staff learn to speak both ‘kid’ and ‘corporate.’”

Among the unique challenges some Cristo Rey Jesuit students face is being first-generation Americans. They feel obligated to succeed for their parents and the school staff, Cass said.

“We have high expectations for our students,” she said. “We also hold them accountable, but with lots of support.”

Joshua Crespo-Arreola, a 2016 graduate who attends the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, agrees with Cass. When he first applied to Cristo Rey Jesuit, he was turned down. That did not mean support went away. School administration encouraged Crespo-Arreola to improve his grades and when the time came, apply again. That’s all he needed. He improved academically, mentally and spiritually, which led to his acceptance at Cristo Rey Jesuit the next year.

Besides support, both students and staff emphasize the importance of religion and Ignatian spirituality in shaping their lives — something the school is proud of, Myers said.

“The kids first sit with other kids who look like them on the outside,” he said. “It doesn’t take long before they are sitting with kids who look like them on the inside.”

That attitude is reinforced, Myers adds, at the end of each school assembly. Everyone recites in one voice, “As we go out in the world, we are guided by faith, prepared for life and always serving others.”

Speaking to her faith, Cassandra Cantos-Figueroa, a 2016 graduate, is grateful for how her teachers interpret sacred Scripture and Christian traditions.

“The old stories do not make sense,” she said. “The teachers here explain them in a way I can apply to my life.”

Cantos-Figueroa said her better understanding has strengthened her faith, allowing her to minister to fellow students and her family. She will attend Hamline University in St. Paul this fall to study law enforcement after transferring from the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. Like Williams, she and Crespo-Arreola are employed by Cristo Rey Jesuit to work with Summer Bridge and also volunteer time mentoring.

Teaching a group of under-resourced, high-energy, high-school kids is very hands-on, Myers said, and the students aren’t the only ones gaining knowledge and perspective.

“But we are learning, learning every day what it takes to bring diverse groups together and form a united community,” he said.

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Category: Featured, Leading With Faith