While private schools—in particular, Catholic schools—have seen an enrollment decline in recent years, the Catholic school network Cristo Rey has flourished, opening two to three schools each year.
The schools enroll only low-income students in grades nine through 12. When students enroll, most are two years behind their peers, but by the time they graduate they’ve been accepted to college. Unique to Cristo Rey schools is that every student works at a local business, with groups of four or five students sharing an entry-level job.
“A typical student… might come in not all that interested in school, but he’s working at a law firm or insurance company,” said Jack Crowe, COO and general counsel for the network. “Typically, they really like that. They enjoy it, and they work hard and do well at it. It helps them to aspire to try harder in school once they realize they can become a lawyer or a doctor.”
Students’ jobs pay a little less than half their tuition costs. Parents contribute a small amount for tuition, and fundraising covers the rest.
Cristo Rey operates 26 schools in 17 states and Washington, DC.
A Network of Support
Many charter schools belong to similar networks, but it’s uncommon for private schools to function like this. Private schools could benefit from organizing into networks like Cristo Rey, according to a study published by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
“A set of organizations realized if there’s one great charter, you can replicate and expand it by creating a [charter management organization (CMO)], a central office that takes your one great school and replicates and expands so it can be two, 20, 40 schools,” said report author Andy Smarick. “In private-school sectors, all these individual, autonomous schools don’t have much central support, don’t have other schools or shared staff that they can rely on.”
CMOs also make it easier to recruit effective teachers, Smarick said. Organizations such as Teach for America, a nontraditional teacher-preparation program, can work with a CMO with 20 schools more easily than it can with 20 individual schools.
This is one of several successful methods private schools could learn from charter schools. Charter schools, in turn, can learn from the private sector.
While many charter schools can get students from disadvantaged backgrounds accepted to college, the college persistence rate is higher in urban Catholic schools, Smarick said. Charter schools could learn from Catholic schools how to encourage their students to remain in college and graduate.
“Both sectors would reap enormous benefit from greater collaboration,” Smarick wrote in the report. “Charter and private schools operate under different regulations, but have many of the same concerns.”
“The Chartered Course: Can Private School Choice Proponents Learn from the Charter Sector?” Andy Smarick, Friedman Foundation, July 2014: http://www.edchoice.org/BreakingDownCharteredCourse.