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Posted September 15, 2004

A Success Story in Catholic Education
Well Worth Duplicating Throughout This Country

Chicago school one of six new schools
based on Cristo Rey model

By Michelle Martin
Catholic News Service

When Karen Ochoa was growing up in Chicago she always wanted to go to Cristo Rey High School.

When her family moved north to Waukegan, she thought she'd lost her chance. But the 14-year-old who plans to become a pediatrician essentially had her wish come true when she entered the newly opened St. Martin de Porres High School in Waukegan.

The school is one of 11 across the country to operate on the model pioneered by Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and one of six to open this school year alone. Cristo Rey, the Jesuit high school that opened in 1996, allows students to pay for most of their education by working five days a month in school-sponsored corporate internships which give the students work experience.

The St. Martin de Porres School represents the culmination of years of planning and cooperation by four religious congregations and St. Mary Parish in Lake Forest.

The five other schools that opened this year following the Cristo Rey model are in Cambridge and Lawrence, Mass.; Cleveland; New York; and Tucson, Ariz. Several other areas -- Baltimore; Indianapolis; Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis, Tenn.; Minneapolis; Omaha, Neb.; and Washington -- are taking part in feasibility studies to determine if they could open a similar school in the near future.

Ochoa is one of 100 students in the first two classes at St. Martin de Porres, which opened with 24 sophomores and 76 freshmen. There are 60 girls and 40 boys in a racially diverse population that is 60 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African-American and 10 percent Caucasian and Asian. Most live in the Waukegan -North Chicago area, an economically challenged pocket in mostly affluent Lake County.

With three younger siblings and parents who send money back to their relatives in Central America, it would be impossible for Ochoa's family to think of sending her to other local Catholic schools. Not only would they cost too much, but they are far away, with no easy transportation.

Father George Rassas, pastor of St. Mary in Lake Forest, started looking for ways to provide Catholic secondary education near his parish about four years ago, when he heard about the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation, which was offering grants to organizations to do feasibility studies for Cristo Rey-model schools.

A school planning team started work in 2001 and they gained support from the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, the Congregation of the Resurrection, the Viatorians and the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters.

The school's first year is getting funding from the four congregations, foundation grants from organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, St. Mary parishioners and others. St. Mary parishioners also helped provide business contacts, making it possible to find more than 25 companies willing to take on interns.

Each company provides one entry-level clerical position, at a cost of $25,000 for the school year. The positions are shared by four students, each of whom works five days a month. The money is paid directly to the school, which also functions as a temporary employment agency, and covers about 70 percent of each student's tuition.

The school provides daily transportation to and from work sites from the school's campus which is part of a former bank building in downtown Waukegan.

Some of the students said they were more nervous about starting work than high school, but many were put more at ease this summer by a week of orientation and two weeks of employment training.

R.J. McMahon, the school president, who worked in the corporate world and in development and fund raising for nonprofits before coming to St. Martin, said he was most impressed by how quickly the students and faculty came together to form a community.

Before classes even started, the students, toting huge binders and their own copies of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers," were greeting one another in the corridors and making friends.

The same bonds were forged among the many volunteers who worked to make the school a reality.

"On at least a half-dozen occasions, I rented a truck and moved furniture," said McMahon. "But every time that happened, it was because someone called and said they had something we needed, and they were willing to give it to us."

The next new challenge will be to raise enough money to expand the school over the next two years.

"All along, I'd been looking at Aug. 23 as the finish line," said McMahon, who was hired a year ago. "I woke up this week and realized it's just the starting line," he told The Catholic New World, Chicago's archdiocesan newspaper.

When asked how he would measure the school's success, McMahon said, "I don't want our students to be sending their children here. I want our students to go to college and end up in positions where they are hiring our students."