There were a lot of things about high school that Jahi Brown loved. At Cristo Rey St. Martin High School in Waukegan, Ill., he learned to play guitar and to speak fluent Spanish. But most importantly, Brown accumulated four years of corporate work experience, putting the 2012 grad head and shoulders above his peers.
“When I tell people that I have four years of work experience at Abbott Labs, a big company in the Midwest, they’re usually impressed,” said Brown. “Not many kids my age have four years of work experience in a large company.”
Cristo Rey St. Martin is one of 26 college prep academies in the Cristo Rey network for urban students around the country. Brown credits the Cristo Rey Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP) with his post-high school success, including a full scholarship to Marquette University, where he is studying journalism.
Like the other 8,000 Cristo Rey students nationwide, Brown was required to work one full 40-hour week out of every month at a sponsoring company. Brown’s CWSP was completed in the human resources division of the global pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories. By the time he graduated high school, he had work experience in talent acquisition, employee records and the benefits division.
“My supervisor ended up being like a second mom to me,” said
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Brown. “She came to my graduation. She cried when I got accepted to Marquette and got a scholarship. She’s become a big part of my life.”
Karina Moreno, a 2005 graduate of the original Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, also feels Cristo Rey network’s CWSP was invaluable to her professional development. During high school, she worked in the mailroom at Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity firm. Today, Madison Dearborn CEO John A. Canning continues to be her mentor.
Moreno was raised in Pilsen by a single mom, an immigrant from Mexico who worried about her daughter getting mixed up in the wrong crowd.
“The local high schools aren’t the best,” said Moreno. “The whole gang and teen pregnancy – things of that nature – kind of scared her. She wanted more of a private Catholic education to help her feel more at ease with (my) teenage years and being in Chicago.”
“The biggest benefit of working in the corporate world when you’re that young is you get to actually see the kind of career that you think you want to do,” said Moreno. “Coming from a background where my parents aren’t professionals – my dad’s a truck driver – they want that future for us and (as teenagers) we know what we think we want, but we don’t live it.”
According to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2005-2009, only 21 percent of adultsover the age of 25 in Pilsen have a college degree. The statistic is even lower – 8 percent – for adults living in nearby Little Village. Meanwhile, 71 percent of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School’s graduating class of 2013 attended a four-year university.
The Corporate Work Study Program pays for 70 percent of each student’s cost of education.
“It makes you more responsible at a younger age, because you’re actually contributing to your own education,” said Moreno. “Especially as a student, when you have a stake in your education you work harder at it and don’t take it for granted as much.”
At her graduation in 2005, Moreno bravely approached Cristo Rey board member and Robert W. Baird CEO Paul Purcell and asked him for an internship. She would work at Baird all through her years at Marquette University, where she earned a degree in finance. She has returned to Chicago to work as an enterprise risk analyst at Options Clearing Corporation.
But Moreno believes that none of this would be possible without the work-study education model at Cristo Rey.
“I was fortunate enough to have people in that workplace who took the time to stop and talk to me … and to explain to me what they were doing and how they were doing it,” she said. “I got that exposure to what the business world was like. That exposure in and of itself gave me the skills I needed to go to college and get a business degree. It also showed me what professionals do, so I could get a better idea of (whether or not) that’s what I wanted to do.”
Brown is equally eager to spread the word about his alma mater. He participated early on in the process of the feasibility study to determine whether or not Milwaukee would be a good place for a Cristo Rey school, and said he was honored to be asked to say the opening prayer at the press conference announcing the opening of Cristo Rey Jesuit Milwaukee High School on April 23.
“Cristo Rey is just a great school to go to … you learn things that you don’t think you would as a high schooler,” he said. “It’s helped me and a bunch of other students and kids reach college and I’m glad I was a part of that.”