Cristo Rey Network Bucks Trend of Declining Catholic School Enrollment

Published January 29, 2018

Achieving the ‘Impossible’

“Since the mid-1960s Catholic high schools in the United States have been separating along different paths based upon their prospects for survival,” William Donovan and Jeffrey Thielman write in “Cristo Rey Schools: A Model of 21st-Century Catholic Education,” released in November 2017. “The pressures of rising labor costs, shifting demographics and a failing business model have created a distinct alignment consisting of schools serving top and bottom tiers and those catering to a shrinking middle class.

“Ironically, Catholic high schools serving families at the bottom of the income scale are thriving,” the authors continue. “Specifically those schools in the Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network, which serve low-income families in urban areas, are doing what many thought impossible. Rather than losing students they are adding them. Instead of closing schools they are opening new ones. And while they aren’t flush with cash, their untraditional business model is better than break-even and provides a pathway to college for families who never envisioned it.”

Returning to Urban Areas

“Cristo Rey schools are returning Catholic education to urban areas,” the paper reported. “In its unique model, students receive a college-preparatory education and participate in a work-study program in which they learn employable skills and earn money to help pay for their tuition. Since the first Cristo Rey school was founded in Chicago in 1996, 31 others have opened in 21 states and the District of Columbia, including in Boston and Lawrence, MA, with plans to add eight more by 2020. Total enrollment is over 11,500 students and more than 13,000 have graduated.”

A National Model

Thielman, president and CEO of the International Institute of New England, cofounded the national Cristo Rey Network, which he says benefited from a focused vision.

“The goal of the first school was to help one neighborhood in the southwest side of Chicago,” Thielman said. “It was very much that one neighborhood. Over time, we realized we have a model here that could work for other places.

“I think what makes [Cristo Rey] so relevant is they have found a way to provide private college prep education to young people with very limited resources,” Thielman said. “There isn’t another model quite like that.”

‘Emergency for Catholic Schooling’

Jamie Gass, director of the Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform, says Cristo Rey schools show how Catholic education can overcome significant marketplace obstacles.

“The thing that makes them more relevant, even twenty-some-odd years [after they were] originally established, is enrollment at Catholic schools has continued to drop dramatically, so there is an emergency for Catholic schooling in America today,” Gass said. “The high quality of Catholic schools has always been present, but the financing and the reality of the labor market have affected Catholic schools pretty hard.”

‘Incredibly Creative’

Cristo Rey schools are funded primarily through work by the students themselves. Students gain four years of professional work experience through the schools’ Corporate Work Study Program. Their work at a local business covers approximately 60 percent of their tuition. After fundraising, which covers approximately 30 percent of tuition costs, families pay an average of $1,000 per year.

Gass says the Cristo Rey model is innovative.

“Cristo Rey folks have been incredibly creative about financing and addressing the urgent needs of getting underserved kids the kind of education they require,” Gass said.

Learning Life Skills

The work-study program is more than a means of covering tuition, the paper says. It “took on a more meaningful, transformative role,” Donovan and Thielman write. “It became a self-esteem builder as teenagers saw they were earning money to help pay for their own education. They learned office skills in environments in which many had never envisioned themselves working. And they developed interpersonal skills with people outside their peer networks including supervisors, company presidents and coworkers.”

Thielman says the work-study aspect of the schools helps form students’ character.

“By working, kids get a better sense of themselves,” Thielman said. “They see the practical applicability of what they’re learning, they become more serious students, and they have a better future in front of them. … I believe it raises expectations for kids everywhere.”

‘Excellent’ Model

Gass says Cristo Rey schools can revitalize the Catholic school system.

“Cristo Rey is an excellent possibility for Catholic schools,” Gass said. “There are lessons that other Catholic schools need to embrace to revitalize urban Catholic education.”

‘The More Choice, the Better’

Gass says increased school choice will bring more options like the Cristo Rey model to more families.

“The more choice, the better, whether you’re talking about high-quality Catholic schools, or charter schools, or tech schools, or virtual schooling,” Gass said. “The evidence is pretty clear: When there’s more choice, it helps stimulate competition with traditional public schools and options for parents.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people in the traditional public school world have kind of monopolistic attitudes about education, so while the Cristo Rey schools provide really high quality schools for a lot less money, like charter schools, most urban districts see that as a loss of their students and their enrollment, [even] though their performance is remarkable and it suits the needs of the parents and students,” Gass said.

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]writes from Alexandria, Virginia.


William Donovan and Jeffrey Thielman, “Cristo Rey Schools: A Model of 21st-Century Catholic Education,” The Pioneer Institute, November 2017:–21st-century-catholic-education