Inside High Schools Where Students Earn Their Tuition

Published June 28, 2014

The 26 U.S. Cristo Rey Catholic schools in the United States give their students a “day off” from school during the week to work in a nearby business or office, earning money to help pay for their private schooling.

In addition to making a little money, students learn the skills of work, which include important personal attitudes and professional behaviors that will help them grow up, find jobs, and succeed in their lives. These include responding to queries, looking people in the eye when spoken to, and dressing and looking like a professional—key skills many schools hardly teach.

How It Works
Students are employed one day per week by professional organizations, known as Corporate Work Study Partners. The adolescents earn money that pays a good part of their tuition. They also gain interpersonal acumen to succeed in school, on the job, and in life.

Students still attend high school classes four days per week on a bell schedule slightly lengthened to compensate for time spent at work. As one family member told the New York Times, “A smiling, confident 14-year old knows he has a kind of opportunity that his parents hoped [for] when they left all they knew in Mexico for unknown chances in East Harlem.”

This model makes work an activity that enhances the education experience in two very different settings: one professional, the other academic.

Cristo Rey in New York
Many families living in Midtown New York City send their children to exclusive private schools at great expense. But Cristo Rey New York High School is in East Harlem, a half-block from Park Avenue.

The school, founded in 2004, operates in a renovated, brick-faced 19th-century building that once served as a tenement house and later a convent. The school serves 393 students, 80 percent of whom are Latino. More than 50 percent are girls. Students must come from low-income families who, except for the Cristo Rey program, would not be able to send their child to an academically superior private school. 

Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Tacoma Park, Maryland, has four-student teams rotate to cover Monday workdays. Each student In New York also works one day per week but in teams of five, with each student covering one of the week’s five work days.

“The five-student grouping seems to work better,” said School President Fr. Joe Parkes.

New York work-study sponsors are heavily weighted toward the finance and insurance industry, with firms such as Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, New York Life, and MetLife. Other corporate and community clients represent law, the media, health care, accounting, education, real estate, and more.

Students’ Stories
The Corporate Work Study Program in New York does not finance the entire cost of Cristo Rey tuition but does supply enough revenue to reduce family costs dramatically. Families pay an average of $1,350 in annual tuition.

Abiezer Mendez graduated in 2008. While a Cristo Rey student, he worked at JP Morgan, the investment bank, earning nearly 50 percent of his tuition. Abiezer says work taught him to balance his time and keep commitments. After graduation, he entered Fordham University, which he found initially intimidating. But his academic and professional experience gave him the skills for success. After graduating from Fordham in 2011, Abiezer accepted a position with JP Morgan.

Bronx native Dominique Rodriguez had lived in a homeless shelter with her mother and older sister. Her father, in and out of jail, was largely absent. Going to school, she reasoned, was her only escape. Fortunately, her principal at Sacred Heart Grade School allowed her to continue attendance after the family could no longer afford tuition.

Qualifying for a high school education at Cristo Rey led to Dominique’s winning a Horatio Alger national scholar selection in 2012, receiving a $20,000 scholarship toward college. She plans to attend Syracuse University or Barnard College.

Five Critical Qualities
The Cristo Rey model has five critical qualities that could be used to educate children everywhere.

1. Children Pay for Their Own Education. The Cristo Rey model helps poor children to pay their own way in getting an education, long called “work-study.” Their internship site becomes a possible career, and employers often later write valuable recommendations.

2. Children Learn to Work. Obeying a dress code, speaking well, being responsible, using proper language, and looking people in the eye all become part of children’s education, skills not often modeled for them in poor neighborhoods. 

3. Dress Code. Learning to dress is important for poor children as they move into a career in white-collar professional jobs.

4. Professional Conduct. Cristo Rey schools place students in real work environments where they are expected and taught to speak clearly, dress properly, and act like adults. 

5. Networking. Often the employers of these children act as future employers or help these inner-city kids find and keep jobs after college and beyond.

“We serve students who have demonstrated the potential and motivation to achieve success and who do not have the educational background to attend another school of its kind,” Parkes explained.

These schools help children and families “catch up” financially, socially, and educationally with their middle-class counterparts.

Warren P. Howe ([email protected]), Ed.D., teaches at Frederick Community College in Maryland.  Bruce S. Cooper, Ph.D., is professor of education leadership at Fordham University.

Image by Eric E. Castro.