The Rev. John Foley

The best ideas are often bred in desperation. A decade ago, Father John Foley and his Jesuit colleagues were in the midst of creating a new college-prep high school for students from Chicago's Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, a low-income area largely populated by Mexican immigrants. Even finishing high school was a lofty goal for many of these youngsters; in the inner city, a 50 percent dropout rate is not unusual. Coming up with a curriculum that would turn likely dropouts into college grads was a major challenge, but figuring out how to pay for the school seemed an even bigger obstacle. Clearly, the parents could not afford much tuition. The church couldn't sustain it, either. The worthy project was in danger of failure before a single student had enrolled. So Foley turned to a management consultant he describes as "original in his thinking." Two weeks later, the consultant, Richard Murray, returned with the suggestion that the students themselves could pay for their education by working at local companies. "It was a brilliant idea," Foley says. "That was the birth of this whole thing."

In 2007, "this whole thing"--now called the Cristo Rey Network after the first school--is set to add seven new schools to 12 already running in poor urban neighborhoods around the country. (More are planned for 2008.) The schools have attracted the attention of major philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which this year announced a $6 million grant to the network on top of an earlier $9.9 million investment. Thanks largely to the work-study program and a rigorous curriculum, Cristo Rey has succeeded where so many others fail: the four-year dropout rate for the network's graduation class this year was 6 percent, and 96 percent enrolled in a two- or four-year college this fall.

The model that succeeded so well in Chicago--no more than 550 motivated students, all from economically disadvantaged backgrounds--so far seems translatable to other cities, which is always a difficult goal in educational innovation. Expectations are high: 99 percent of the class of 2006 was accepted to college. Students work one day a week for corporations doing entry-level jobs. Foley believes the work requirement has a major impact on students far beyond what the money does for the schools' bottom lines. "I like to say that it has opened horizons for them," he says.

When the first students went off to their jobs in the fall of 1996, Foley was so anxious that he says "I wanted to hide under the desk." But then he began to hear from employers--most of them in major corporations in Chicago's business district--thanking him for the hardworking students, and from students themselves, many of whom were venturing out of their neighborhoods for the first time. "Imagine them going to the Sears Tower, to the 60th floor, and finding they have a desk there," he says. "On Sundays, they would take their parents down to the city and just look in on the buildings from the outside."

The Chicago Cristo Rey school now sends students to 106 corporations. They spend one day a week downtown for every four days in the classroom. Employers pay the school $27,000 for each job--70 percent of tuition costs. Tuition is $2,650, but 60 percent of families get some aid. This cost includes the students' schoolbus transportation from Cristo Rey at 8 a.m. and from downtown Chicago at 4:45 p.m. "We do all the recruiting, all the HR, we take out all the taxes," says Peter Beale-DelVecchio, director of development. Some students also choose to work in the summer. If they do, they get to keep their salaries. Employers agree not to hire students whose GPA falls below 2.0. To get students ready for work, Cristo Rey requires freshmen to undergo a three-week summer training program where students learn the basics of business behavior--how to shake hands, maintain eye contact, answer the phone--as well as tasks like filing. Parents, most of whom speak little English, are bullish on the program. "They help the students to succeed," says Irma Vargas, whose daughter, Lillian, is a freshman. "She feels important."

In Chicago, 82 percent of alumni have graduated from or are currently attending college. One of those graduates (class of 2004) is Angelica Barron, 21, now a sophomore at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Earlier this month, she returned to the school to watch her brother, Oscar Solis, 18, perform in a play for Our Lady of Guadalupe Day. "I don't think I would have gone to college if it hadn't been for this school," she says. In her internship at a law firm, she worked in the library, human resources, information services and accounting. She still remembers how Cristo Rey brought in many schools for a college fair, which helped her classmates see "the opportunities that are out there waiting for us." Her goal is to be a teacher--and pass that gift on to the next generation.