Birdsell says the mission of Cristo Rey is “propelled by faith.” “When the Jesuits wanted to serve Chicago’s South Side community in some way, Father Gartwin knocked on doors and canvassed the people. How could they best serve them? Did they want a resource center for the elderly? An after-school center? But overwhelmingly the residents wanted a college preparatory school for their children.”
A college preparatory school that accepts students who have been academically under-served is unique. Teaching these students is a challenge, because they have to learn one and a half years of schooling while also holding down a job at which they work five days a month. It isn’t easy, but Birdsell says the teachers he looks for are “dynamic, energetic, experienced, talented.” He prefers that they pursue ongoing training and have master’s degrees in the subjects they teach. Birdsell says his most effective principals meet with teachers weekly, and that evaluations are ongoing, not a formal, annual affair.
Birdsell describes the program as “collaborative and rigorous,” and he says “It’s exciting to witness educators from LA to New York sharing best practices, data, and writing a curriculum together.” The teachers do not have tenure, so they can be asked to leave if they’re not considered effective. “It’s about the kids, not the adults,” says Birdsell. Students can also be dismissed if they can’t hold onto their job, and there’s zero tolerance around gang involvement or violence.
But of the students who stay and graduate from Cristo Rey, more than 85% go on to college, which is 15 points higher than the national average and twice the average of the population Cristo Rey serves; 85% of those students stay for their sophomore year, which is about triple the national average. “They are going to college and staying in college at rates that surpass expectations,” says Birdsell. One of the organization’s goals is to track its graduates’ college graduation rates.
Birdsell says the Cristo Rey Network’s national breadth brings people together from all over the country in a shared movement to help young people succeed in school and in life. And he suggests that there’s a higher reason: “People often talk about the cycle of poverty, which inherently means it can’t be broken. If we believe that all young people can learn and be productive citizens, then we believe that the cycle can be broken, and when it is not, we as a community or culture are committing a collective sin.”
For more information about Cristo Rey, go to CristoReyNetwork.org.