Earlier this year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a somewhat unusual addition to its K-12 portfolio: nearly $19 million over five years to expand the "Cristo Rey" schools nationwide.

On the surface, this announcement appeared to be no more than a new element in the $450 million Gates Foundation effort to promote smaller schools. Over the past few years, Gates has supported the conversion of existing high schools into smaller units and, more recently, the creation of small high schools new from the ground up.

The five Cristo Rey schools that currently exist are small, urban high schools that feature a college prep curriculum and have reported much better educational outcomes than other schools with roughly the same student demographics--positive signs that have generated lots of visits from interested educators and glowing coverage in the media.

What makes this Gates announcement notable, however, is that Cristo Rey schools are Catholic, specifically Jesuit. The Gates Foundation, like many philanthropies, has usually limited its K-12 funding to public school-only reforms (including charter schools). With this decision, Gates becomes the first large education philanthropy to support Catholic education at the national level, say Catholic school officials. And, by throwing its reputation and considerable weight behind a parochial school model, the Gates Foundation is making a small but fundamental shift in the types of solutions that mainstream education donors are willing to pursue.

Yet winning Gates funding for a parochial school model is not the only thing that makes Cristo Rey schools interesting. In fact, it is only icing on the cake.

For starters, it's noteworthy that new Cristo Rey schools are opening at all, countering a decades-long trend in which urban Catholic schools have closed in droves due to decreasing enrollments and shrinking church subsidies. Last year alone, their number declined by about 100 schools.

Even before the Gates Foundation announcement, new Cristo Rey schools were popping up at a rate of one or two per year. The original Cristo Rey high school that opened in 1996 was said to be the first new Catholic high school in Chicago in 30 years. Since then, four more Cristo Rey schools have appeared in Austin, Los Angeles, Portland, and, most recently, Denver. Eight more are in the works in places as diverse as New York City, Boston, New Brunswick, New Bern (N.C.), Cleveland, Lawrence (Mass.), Tucson, and Waukegan (Ill.).

The secret to this success is the Cristo Rey work-study model. Each Cristo Rey pupil shares a full-time entry-level office job with three other students, and goes to work on average one day a week throughout the year. These are real jobs, not internships or job shadowing. The school screens, trains, and transports roughly a quarter of its population to work every day, and provides supervision for these entry-level jobs at one of the law firms, insurance companies, and nonprofits that take them on.

The job-sharing program has turned out to have tremendous social and academic side benefits, say Cristo Rey officials. In Chicago, for example, many of the students had never even been downtown, much less had direct experience with a "professional," white-collar, work environment.


But the main function of the work-study program is to cover roughly 75 percent of the operating costs of the school and lower tuition dramatically. At an average of just $2,200, Cristo Rey schools charge roughly half of what many other parochial schools charge, and much less than the most prestigious Jesuit or nonsectarian independent schools. They're the cheapest private schools you've probably ever heard of.


But that's not all. Their low tuition also happens to address one of many long-standing objections to private school vouchers: the concern that voucher amounts wouldn't be big enough to cover the cost of a private school education. At $2,200, Cristo Rey schools all but bridge that gap.

To be sure, this model does not address many other obstacles and concerns about vouchers. There are only a handful of schools up and running--not nearly enough to make a dent in the public system. Nor are Cristo Rey schools the right education environment for everyone. (The Chicago school takes only Spanish-speaking immigrant students, for example.) Parents and students choosing Cristo Rey have to work much harder than many other families. And Cristo Rey schools do not present themselves as a voucher demonstration project.


Yet it's intriguing to see a fledging school model in which a public voucher could cover most of the direct expense of a private, college prep education.


In the end, private school options may make no more concrete or large-scale difference to improving student achievement than charter schools, privately run schools, or any of the many other configurations that have been devised. That debate may never be settled. But for the students and parents who are empowered by the presence of choices, the difference will be immense. And for at least some of those parents who can't afford even a traditional parochial school tuition, Cristo Rey schools might be just right. 


Alexander Russo is a Chicago-based education writer.

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