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Posted April 20, 2007

A Success Story Well Worth Studying

With Jesuits' support,
new Cristo Rey school planned for Houston

By Julie Bourbon
Catholic News Service

NEW ORLEANS (CNS) -- The Society of Jesus' New Orleans province will sponsor a high school in Houston that will be part of the Cristo Rey Network, which establishes schools in urban areas to serve economically and educationally disadvantaged youths.

The network has commissioned a feasibility study to determine where in Houston the high school should be located. It will serve the fourth most populous city in the country and one of the most ethnically diverse.

The one-year feasibility study will begin this summer and will take into account demographic, educational, housing and other data. The study coordinator, who has not yet been hired, will interview local school, church and community leaders, and will conduct focus groups of middle-school students and their parents to gauge interest in the school.

The study will determine whether there are enough entry-level clerical jobs in the area to support the school's students, as well as how many students might enroll. Cristo Rey schools partner with local businesses that provide job opportunities for students, covering their tuition through their salaries.

Upon completion of the feasibility study, which will include a budget and a business plan, the Cristo Rey Network board of directors will review it and, if accepted, grant the school provisional membership in the network.

Students at Cristo Rey schools have a longer school day and year, and they receive academic assistance. Counseling prepares students, many of whom typically enter below their grade level, for college admission after graduation. The schools also promote spiritual formation and learning in an environment of faith.

More than 2,800 students nationwide are currently enrolled in 12 Cristo Rey schools. Seven more schools are expected to open in fall 2007, with the Houston school opening in fall 2009, after a site is secured and relationships with at least 25 local businesses are established.

The school will start with a freshman class, growing by one class each subsequent year. Curriculum will be dual-language, as many in the target population speak both Spanish and English.

"In other cities, Cristo Rey has proven to be an effective model," said Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, New Orleans provincial. "It joins a Jesuit, college-preparatory education with work-study for those who would otherwise not have this opportunity available to them."

There are currently nine diocesan high schools in the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese. Retired Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza is an honorary chairman of the "Forging a Future Full of Hope" capital campaign, of which the Cristo Rey initiative is a major focus.

The Jesuits have four high schools in the New Orleans province, which covers a 10-state region, including Strake Jesuit College Prep in Houston. This would be their first Cristo Rey school in the region.

"This cutting edge model will truly benefit the students by building positive self-esteem within a Catholic school environment," said Jesuit Father Michael Dooley, the province's assistant for secondary education.

The Jesuits chose Houston in part because Texas was recently ranked 48th in the nation by the Nonprofit Education Research Center of Texas in terms of giving children a chance of succeeding in life through education.

The Houston Independent School District reports that 70 percent of inner-city students come from economically disadvantaged homes. This is the target population the school will hope to serve if the feasibility study is favorable.

Students at Cristo Rey schools typically qualify for the federal lunch program, which is free or provided at a reduced charge, and they come from families whose incomes are less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

"The Gospel calls us to help others," said Father Kammer. "Cristo Rey is the instrument through which Jesuits can take our educational traditions and offer these youth, as the saying goes, 'a hand up, not a handout.'"

The Cristo Rey Network is based in Chicago and was started in 2001, after the founding of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in that city. The Cassin Foundation was an early supporter, making a $12 million donation in 2001 to fund multiple Cristo Rey schools. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, contributes funds to establish and run the schools.