A normal American high school student wishing to take a job may be doing so only to earn a few dollars for a movie with a girlfriend or to buy a cool gadget like an iPod. You might see such a teenager flipping burgers at the local fast food eatery, or bagging groceries and pushing carts at the supermarket. It is almost unheard of to find a high school student clad in a suit and tie going to work at a bank or a similar job. But that is exactly what the students of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School do.
Located in the Phillips West neighborhood of Minneapolis, Cristo Rey is a high school that prepares students for college by finding them internships in local companies like Wells Fargo and Best Buy. Five students share a fulltime job where each works an eight-hour day once a week. But the income they earn doesn’t end up being spent on movies and new sneakers: it pays for nearly 70 percent of their cost of attendance in this private, Catholic school. That is because to be accepted to the school a student has to come from a low-income family.
“We focus on students from families that don’t have the income to send their sons and daughters to a college-prep private high school,” says Fr. Bill Johnson, the director of admissions. “Today that cost is anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 a year. If you can afford that, you are not allowed here.”
Parents pay for their children’s educations at Cristo Rey based on how much they earn. Some pay as little as $1 a day, Fr. Johnson says.
Cristo Rey is modeled after a Jesuits school by the same name founded in 1996 in Chicago, from which all graduating seniors get accepted to college.
Although the idea of making high school students work to pay for their education is fairly new, the Society of Jesus, whose members are called Jesuits, has been around since 1540. It was founded in Europe by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a former knight, to spread the gospel of Jesus, and is the largest order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church.
Soon after the society’s founding, Jesuits started schools. Today in the United States, Jesuits run 50 high schools and 28 colleges and universities, including Georgetown University, University of Detroit, University of San Francisco and the Loyola group of universities.
But don’t let the name fool you: Cristo Rey Jesuit High School is open to students of all religions. Forty percent of the students are not Catholic, Fr. Johnson says. The school is also 55 percent Latino, 30 percent African American, and the remaining come from the other communities.
“We try to respect the differences in religion, ethnicity and languages,” Fr. Johnson says. “We want to work together and celebrate the diversity. If you are Muslim I’m not going to convert you to Catholicism. We let all the students and their families practice their religions on the weekends.”
That freedom to choose is one of the things Nimco Ahmed, a Muslim whose niece attends Cristo Rey, liked about the school.
“I don’t have a problem with kids learning other religions outside their own, and I never had any fear about the school,” Ahmed says. “There was never a doubt in my mind that this was a good school that I wanted my niece to take advantage of.”
But religion was something Ahmed had to talk to her family about.
“My niece asked, ‘What are you doing? Why do I have to go to a Catholic school?’ But I explained it to her and said, ‘Listen. I went to school with people of other religions and I never had a problem.’ She is over it now. She likes all the things she has that other schools don’t have.”
Those things include state-of-the-art science laboratories. The campus itself looks like a small college, only newer. There are lounges with colorful art and carpet where students dressed like corporate executives settle in cozy sofas with notebook computers – all provided by the school – on their laps. Such fancy equipment and facilities and the strict dress code are new to nearly all the students, but they are learning fast.
“I had never been to a private school, so the change really is a big difference,” says Nabil Mohamed, a 15-year-old schoolboy born in Kenya to Somali parents. “We stay longer after school, our clothes are different, our education is different and the most important is our CIP (Corporate Internship Program) jobs.”
Nabil works at nearby Wells Fargo Mortgage.
“It is really interesting,” Nabil says about his job. “I’m learning things I never thought I would know at this age.”
Cristo Rey Jesuit High school is still taking applications for its second freshman class. For more information contact Fr. Bill Johnson at 612-545-9704, firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also visit www.cristoreytc.org.