Cristo Rey students gain life skills in and out of the classroom


The Cristo Rey high school means business—and that includes putting students to work at local businesses.

It’s Halloween and fourteen-year old Juan Jose is dressed in a slick red button-down shirt and black dress pants. At four o’clock, he’ll get his party, but other than a homemade tree with orange lights in the school library, it’s business as usual at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.

Cristo Rey first opened its doors in September to a batch of ninth graders looking for an alternative to the Minneapolis Public Schools. A longer school day, professional dress code and mandatory internship attracted 95 students this year.

Although President Fr. David Haschka allows time for fun, the curriculum at Cristo Rey is demanding. “Students who choose to come here have to work harder,” says Haschka, “we demand that and they have to be willing to live with that.”

The school shares the space at 29th Street and 4th Avenue South with Urban Ventures Leadership Foundation in the attached Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center. The Minneapolis location is part of a larger Cristo Rey network, originating with the first high school in Chicago in 1996, following Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Bernadin’s challenge to Chicago Jesuits to provide quality education to an impoverished immigrant population on the city’s southwest side. Since then, twelve schools have sprung up across the nation with seven more to be established within the year.

Cristo Rey is specifically geared at low-income students, and ninety-five percent of those attending qualify for free or reduced lunch. “[These students] usually have more demanding educational needs,” says Fr. Haschka, “you need a program that is designed to serve that population.” The school day goes from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a break from formal classes at 4:00, during which time students can do homework and choose an enrichment activity, like theater, dance, drum line, or gardening. An additional aspect of the school’s mission is to tie classroom learning in with real-life experience through an internship program that has students on the job at least one day per week.

Juan Jose, whose favorite part of the school day is working on wooden boats with Urban Boatbuilders, has relished his experience at STS Consultants, an engineering consulting firm in Maple Grove. “It’s fun,” he says, “I learn how to do filing and how to work like that.” Jose, who spends most of his time at STS sending out mail, filing and dealing with receipts, doesn’t know where he wants to go to college yet but says that attending is definitely in the cards. “I’m deciding whether I want to be a mechanic or a lawyer,” he says.

Some of the Twin Cities companies working with Cristo Rey’s corporate internship program are Best Buy, Allina Hospitals & Clinics, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage and Dorsey & Whitney law firm. Patrick Lutter, Chief Administrative Officer at Dorsey & Whitney, has been involved with the program since its inception, overseeing the partnership between students and supervisors. “The first two months have gone really well,” says Lutter, “Students seem to know more about what they’re doing, and are more interested in what they’re doing.”

At Dorsey & Whitney, the ninth graders rotate through different departments, stocking supplies, delivering mail, tracking inventory and photocopying. The variety of tasks has kept students engaged, while teaching them a number of vital job skills. “They’re learning some of the basics…business behaviors and what’s expected of employees,” says Lutter, “it’s also a vivid way of showing these students that they can succeed in a business environment. Whereas before, it wasn’t in the realm of possibilities.”

Fr. Haschka says that the work experience may be the first time many students have stepped into such situations. “Most of our students never imagined themselves at a law firm,” says Fr. Haschka, “They discover this world where they can be…it’s not a foreign planet for them.” Four students share one job, alternating time at the host company and earning up to 75% of their school tuition. The remaining cost of education, which totals approximately $11,000 per year, comes from grants, such as the Gates Foundation and the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation, and parents, who contribute from a dollar a day up to $2400 a year.

The application process for admission to Cristo Rey includes an application form, a financial aid form, transcripts and recommendations from two teachers and one community leader. Students also must be eligible for employment, and Fr. Haschka believes that current immigration laws are a big reason why student enrollment is down. “I hope the legislature will come to its senses,” he says.

Juan Jose is one of the 60% of students who believes in the Catholic mission of the school, although he is not required to be a practicing Catholic in order to attend. “We’d be happy if after some time they want to convert,” says Fr. Haschka, “[but] it’s not our objective to convert them.” The school is not a traditional Catholic school, claims Haschka, and is instead an expression of the Catholic religion, much like Catholic Charities. Fr. Haschka adds, however, “it’s the dedication of teachers. They wake up at 6 a.m. and don’t leave until 6 p.m. No one would work for us if it weren’t a mission from God.”

Upstairs in Don Beach’s class, students pull out their laptops and work in small groups to perform statistical analysis and gather data for a class assignment. Three girls are working quietly in the corner as a couple of boys hunch over computers, their ties brushing the keyboards. If it weren’t for the youthful enthusiasm and snippets of slang, the scene could be not at a thriving inner city high school but in a business meeting anywhere in the Twin Cities.