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An Education Where Students Have Skin in the Game

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The Cristo Rey Network, a chain of Catholic schools, has enrolled its first class of 105 students on the former campus of Benedictine High School in Richmond, creating an affordable private-school alternative for dozens of low-income black and Hispanic youth.

What makes Cristo Rey unique is the degree to which students and their families put skin in the game. To cover 60% of their $13,000-a-year tuition, students work one day per week in the Corporate Work Study Program, in which four students share a full-time, entry-level job with companies such as Dominion Energy, CoStar Group and Bon Secours. Local philanthropists cover 30% to 35% of the tuition, while families are expected to contribute between $20 and $40 a month.

The program helps students focus in the classroom because they have to work for their education, says Kathleen Powers, a Cristo Rey teacher told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “This is their investment.”

The curriculum of the new Richmond school is geared to helping students catch up to grade level in English and math so they will be prepared to attend college when they graduate. At other Cristo Rey schools, nine in 10 students enroll in college — a rate nearly 30 percentage points higher than for most low-income high school students.
The RTD doesn’t discuss it, but it appears from the photographs accompanying the article that students appear to adhere to a strict dress code. Also, I would expect that Cristo Rey schools offer greater order in the classroom than inner city schools. But school discipline is not enforced by sadistic nuns rapping students on the knuckles. The national Cristo Rey website states:

We believe that to create a positive learning environment, it is important to have a community built upon trust. Adults in our community work hard to establish high trust relationships with students that follow appropriate boundaries and set high expectations.

The encouragement and recognition given to positive behavior begets an environment that focuses on learning the appropriate behavior rather than shame and punishment … All behavior in the school should help to establish and maintain an environment within the school that fosters maximum learning and mutual respect. Students are expected to be respectful of the learning process and to take responsibility for their own learning. Students struggling to meet this expectation are sometimes required to complete retraining sessions during Structured Study classes.

Bacon’s bottom line: Cristo Rey is a welcome development for the Richmond metropolitan area. The school will provide an escape hatch for more than 100 students who would otherwise be consigned to under-performing schools in Richmond, Petersburg and neighboring localities. The school sets high expectations, and by asking students and families to contribute to tuition, students have a greater appreciation of the opportunity they are given. Cristo Rey students are expected to work with greater diligence and intensity than their peers in public schools. They will learn the value of the work ethic. I would not be surprised if many Cristo Rey graduates advance farther in life than pampered, peers in more affluent families.

The Richmond and Petersburg school systems, beset by continuing scandals, seem incapable of reforming themselves. Many public school administrators resent private schools like Cristo Rey that “skim the cream” of the student body, siphoning off more motivated students more likely to succeed. But the Criso Rey students and their families are surely grateful for the opportunity break free of the cycle of poverty.

This commentary originally appeared in the July 22 issue of the online Bacon’s Rebellion.

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