MILWAUKEE — Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in West Milwaukee is well into its second academic year. For many longtime supporters of the school, that accomplishment once seemed like a far-off dream.
There was a definite attitude of triumph among the attendees at the school’s first fundraiser, Oct. 15 at Discovery World. During the event, benefactors and corporate partners mingled with staff members, students and their parents in an evening that celebrated, above all, the lasting impact of a first job.
The Cristo Rey model features a unique corporate work-study program that requires students to engage in one full workday each week at one of the Cristo Rey partner companies. Cristo Rey Milwaukee’s list of corporate partners is a who’s who of the Wisconsin business world and includes the Milwaukee Bucks, Aurora Healthcare, Northwestern Mutual, Johnson Controls and more.
It is this work experience that propels Cristo Rey students, most of whom are from economically disadvantaged families, to take ownership of their academic and professional futures, said Andrew Stith, Cristo Rey Milwaukee president.
In his remarks to the crowd, Stith noted that in the nationwide Cristo Rey Network, consisting of 32 Jesuit-run college preparatory academies in 21 states, college acceptance is 100 percent. Furthermore, Cristo Rey alumni graduate college at two-and-a-half times the rate of their fellow low-income students.
“Our vision is that our young people will be leaders in this community, who will make decisions with both their heads and their hearts,” he said.
‘A celebration of all that we’ve built’
Cristo Rey Milwaukee has had support from a number of well-known business personalities since before the school was in the development phase, and most of them were present at the fundraiser at Discovery World.
In August 2012 a feasibility study was sponsored by Marquette University’s College of Education and supported by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the Midwestern Jesuits and the Cristo Rey Network. The study, led by Stith, surveyed 466 students, 92 parents and interviewed 100 community and education leaders to assess the city’s need for a private high school that would be accessible to low-income students.
“There was some resistance, but ultimately there were too many champions for children in this city who stepped up when it mattered,” said William Henk, dean of the College of Education and a longtime supporter of the school. “That’s what carried me through when we came up against the obstructionists and the naysayers.”
Henk specifically praised the leadership at Marquette University and the early involvement of Marquette trustee Anne Zizzo of the Zizzo Group.
“Once Marquette was in, Andy (Stith) knew we had a chance,” he said.
The university is the single largest employer of Cristo Rey students, with 14 freshmen and sophomores working in a variety of departments.
“Tonight’s a great celebration of all that we’ve built and all that we are at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Milwaukee,” Stith told the Catholic Herald. “It’s the beginning of the work that we have in front of us, it’s a celebration of the support of the broader community, and it’s a recognition of the work that our students and our staff and so many volunteers and our board and all those who have come together to support Cristo Rey – a recognition of the work that has been done, and has been done really well.”
Owning their education
While donors ate dinner in the Pilot House, Cristo Rey Milwaukee students visited their tables to discuss the benefits of the school’s educational model. Many reported that the corporate work-study program was what drew them to Cristo Rey.
“She’s very excited with the program, overall, with the way Cristo Rey works and with the work-study program especially,” said Norberto Rios, father of sophomore Victoria, who works at Robert W. Baird & Co. “She’s a very responsible, very self-sufficient girl, so now when she’s working with pros and doing stuff that is maybe not (typical) for her age, she feels very important to get involved in all that.
“I hear some parents (express) disagreement about the work – like, you have to work?” he continued. “But the places they have to work, it’s professional places; they’re not bagging produce at Pick n’ Save. They’re professional jobs, where we want them to be one day.”
“The school’s already college prep, but the work program is that extra step,” said Victoria.
Sophomore Saul Morales-Rivas said he felt the work-study program would help him decide what kind of career he wanted to pursue. Last year he worked at US Bank, and this year he works at United Healthcare. He has decided that he wants to enter a field that has a degree of client interaction rather than just deskwork.
“I knew no other high school was going to give me the opportunity, and if I was going to work at four different corporations during my four years there, my resume for college would look really impressive,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure, but it kind of goes away once you get used to what you’re doing.”
“The first week or two they’re there, they are so afraid. They’re so scared. You practice (with) them answering the phone and the first time, they freeze,” said Mike Giffhorn, member of the Cristo Rey Milwaukee board and president of corporate partner Cubic Designs. “Now, they walk in — ‘Hey Mike, how you doing?’ The confidence is really neat to see.”
Sophomore Jacky Gutierrez, who spent last year manning the front desk at Froedtert Hospital, said it helped her come out of her shell.
“You get a lot of training beforehand … but when we got to Froedtert Health, it was a whole different experience. You’re on your own, and you’re just a student,” she said. “I helped out the visitors and the patients. Being a hospital, it’s not always easy. Not everyone wants to be in the hospital. You learn a lot about dealing with human emotion, other people – it was a great experience. Even if it’s just a front desk job or customer service, it’s like you learn how much your position means to the whole company. Customer service is kind of the only face a company has to the community.”
This year she works at Coakley Brothers in an office setting.
“It builds my work experience, switching from customer service to working with spreadsheets. I’ve been learning and my supervisor provides me with feedback, so it’s just a whole other setting,” she said.
Freshman MacKenzie Billups is excited about his internship with the Milwaukee Bucks community relations department, and is unfazed by the responsibility of involvement with such a prestigious company at the age of 14.
“I think of it as an opportunity. When you get your college resume, just to put, ‘I worked with the Milwaukee Bucks for a year’ – it’s just a nice experience,” he said.
When asked if it’s difficult to switch from the juvenile lifestyle of a student to dealing with an eight-hour workday in a corporate setting, the aspiring engineer was pragmatic.
“It’s not about the feeling, it’s about the experience. You’ve got to throw the feeling aside and just look at your perspective of life,” he said.
The impetus for welcoming students to their workplace is primarily for the formation of the child, said Giffhorn. But that doesn’t mean the child is the only one who benefits.
“We as business people love to complain about, oh, there’s not enough skilled labor, we can’t find good employees,” Giffhorn said. “Well, this is how you start to develop that. Expose them to the real world workplace early on, so by the time they get to college, they kind of know (what direction they want to take).”
Students throughout the Cristo Rey network earn about $55 million each year at 2,300 businesses nationwide, helping to offset the cost of their own education. Family contributions make up about 1 percent of the cost, and the rest is paid for through fundraising and school choice programs.
“They truly own this education,” said Stith.
School provides professional mentors
The average annual income of a Cristo Rey Milwaukee family is $34,000, with an average family size of 4.5 people. Ninety percent of students qualify for the federally-assisted school lunch program. Most will be the first in their family to attend college.
The corporate work-study program is also intended to provide students, in many ways pioneers in their families and communities, with mentors who will shepherd them to success. It was with this in mind that Betty and Peter Bell, major benefactors of Cristo Rey Milwaukee, helped start the Companion Cafe initiative. This monthly speaker series invites six to eight Cristo Rey students to breakfast with various professionals who will, said Betty, help them to navigate “the zig-zags” of their career trajectory.
“We’re trying to fill in the blank … we don’t come out of high school and find the perfect college; we don’t come out of college and find the perfect job. It’s a process,” said Bell. “It’s really about connecting with these students … with some role models. It’s a little scary, I think, for some of them to think, ‘OK, I’m filing papers at Northwestern Mutual and yes, I’m very lucky to be here, but how do I get from here to one of the top jobs and how does that all work?’ These are kids whose parents have never gone to college and may not have gone to high school, so where is their mentoring going to come from?”
Evening raises funds and honors advocates
The event raised $329,000 for the school, including $107,000 raised in a live auction during the evening. The highlight of the event was the presentation of the Spirit of Cristo Rey Award to Jeffrey and Dr. Sarah Joerres, longtime supporters of the school. Jeffrey Joerres is the former executive chairman and CEO of ManpowerGroup.
“Jeff recognized early the potential of our educational model … and took a risk on our new organization and became an advocate for us in the business community,” Stith said.
In his remarks, Joerres asked the audience how many of them could think of their first jobs. Every hand raised.
“All of us (can remember),” he said. “It’s a huge impact … I can go all the way to this stage today and the journey that I was able to take … and say that I can trace it to that first job….
“What compelled me to be part of this is really simple. I spent most of my working life trying to put people to work. And seeing the impact of somebody bringing that paycheck home and feeling honored to do that … and knowing that we can translate that into what’s happening with the students and the kids, meant an absolute world to me.”