A profile of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Milwaukee

By: Libby Sobic and Cori Petersen

high school student at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin does not spend every day in the classroom. Instead, each student spends one day a week working in an office in the greater Milwaukee area. The Corporate Work Study Program assigns students, in teams, to a local company based on interest and skill. Each student team member works five full days per month within normal business hours. The school structures academic schedules to ensure that students never miss a class while providing access and experience in the workplace.

This model is unique and it’s working. Cristo Rey High School, serving a majority of low-income and minority high school students, opened in Milwaukee in 2015 and is expanding. Today, the enrollment is nearly 400 students and most participate in one of Wisconsin’s voucher programs. “We value delivering an educational model to young people who wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise and moving the needle in urban education,” said Andrew Stith, Founding President of Cristo Rey Milwaukee.

The Cristo Rey Network was first founded in 1996 by Jesuits in Chicago who were trying to help a community in the Pilsen neighborhood. The community told them they needed a good school for their kids. The Jesuits knew these families couldn’t afford a private school tuition, so they went to an innovative thinker in the business community to try and figure out how to make Catholic prep school viable for young people who couldn’t afford it otherwise. Public funding wasn’t available, so the business leader told the Jesuits to find a job for students to do, charge a wage for that job and then use that money to help offset the cost of tuition. That’s just what they did, and now the network includes more than 35 schools nationwide.

It is often said that public schools are important because they act as a center for community. But Cristo Rey is providing an opportunity for kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to rub shoulders and grow relationships with the business community where many of their students would never naturally make connections.

“Our students begin to develop relationships at an early age that would allow them to pursue what job or career they’re thinking of,” said Stith. “Anything from letters of recommendation to support in college, and then potentially opening a door to a job down the road are ways that our students benefit from our work study program.” Job responsibilities include a variety of areas, such as accounting, human resources, finance, and marketing and business development.

“They get a glimpse of the broader world. They get to see what’s out there,” said Stith. “They learn that if I want that job, there’s a path to that job with further education and further training.”

Cristo Rey students also do well academically. In fact, 100 percent of Cristo Rey Network’s students have been accepted into college, and the Milwaukee school’s first graduating class is on track to have 100 percent acceptance this year.

Local companies also benefit from the Cristo Rey model. In the Milwaukee area 75 companies participate in the Corporate Work Study Program including Harley-Davidson, Johnson Controls, and Rockwell Automation. For them it is a cost-effective solution to fill entry-level work and help train the next generation of Milwaukee leaders. Students are placed with corporate partners through a high-energy event that is structured like a professional sports draft. For Cristo Rey students, draft day is when they are introduced to their corporate partners, presented with company “swag” and celebrated as new employees. This is an exciting way to celebrate the student’s successes.

For many students, Cristo Rey wouldn’t be within reach without the Wisconsin voucher program. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) gives families access to private schools who wouldn’t otherwise have the ability to choose the best school for their child. Research by Dr. Will Flanders from WILL and his co-author Dr. Corey DeAngelis was the first to quantify the economic benefit of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to the community. The study found that students in the MPCP will have higher graduation rates and fewer run-ins with law enforcement, resulting in nearly $500 million in economic benefits.

According to Stith, while Cristo Rey’s immediate goals are to help their students get into college, succeed in college and then get their first jobs, they care even more about the development of each student as a whole person. “Ultimately we want our students to be people who are leaders and who are giving back to their communities.”

Libby Sobic is a Director and Legal Counsel for Education at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

Cori Petersen is a writer and research analyst at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.