All in a day's work

11th May 2012 at 01:00
One day a week, students at Cristo Rey high schools in the US work for major corporations - with their salary paying the school fees for the other four. David Marley reports on plans to bring the scheme to the UK

When your average 14-year-old decides to get a part-time job, what are their options? A paper round, perhaps. Or, more likely, working a few hours a week for a pittance in a fast-food restaurant or high-street shop.

Imagine, instead, a regular paid job at an international investment bank, law firm or management consultancy. It sounds like the preserve of a well- connected elite, but in the US a unique chain of schools makes this kind of weekly employment central to the education of pupils from the poorest homes.

All students who attend high schools in the Cristo Rey Network - established by the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church - work for five days a month at a blue-chip company. But there is a catch: they do not see a cent of the money they earn. Instead, everything they make is given directly back to the school to pay for their education.

In the US, where no state funding is available for faith schools, the scheme was devised as a way to offer an intensive, private school-style education - with an expectation that all pupils will go to university - to children growing up in some of the toughest urban neighbourhoods, with lives often blighted by gangs and crime.

Now, with an impressive track record of success, the group wants to bring its model to this side of the Atlantic. Changes to the school system in England, particularly the introduction of free schools, have paved the way for a host of new providers, a situation Cristo Rey hopes it can turn to its advantage. Rob Birdsell, the network's president and chief executive officer, met for exploratory talks with officials from the Department for Education last year and is now seeking a partner to work out how far it would be possible to import Cristo Rey's philosophy.

"I know there's a need and I'm urging people to get involved," Birdsell tells TES. "We need to determine what would work and what we could do in the UK. What would the business buy-in to the programme be? Would students want to go to a school like this? Who would sponsor it? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, but one thing we know is that the model has proved a huge success in America in transforming the lives of children from poor homes.

"I'm confident that the core elements of Cristo Rey could be adapted to a school in London or Liverpool, for example. The work programme and preparation for college (university) that we offer launches young people into a life they cannot imagine."

The Corporate Work Study Program started as a way of funding the Cristo Rey Network, but it has become one of the key reasons the schools have succeeded, its supporters believe. As well as funding pupils' education, it boosts their self-confidence and helps them visualise what they can achieve with a good education.

Students work in teams of five to job-share a full-time, entry-level clerical position at a major company. Businesses that have signed up include HSBC, Deloitte and Credit Suisse, and Cristo Rey's 6,500 students - from its 24 schools across 17 states - now share 1,500 jobs between them.

"Holding down a professional job from a young age is one of the keys to changing people's lives," says Birdsell. "It transforms young people's expectations."

Because Cristo Rey's schools in the US are in the independent sector, the network is able to decide its own admissions criteria, allowing them to means-test applicants and only accept pupils from poor homes. Parents who want to send their children to a Cristo Rey school have to provide their tax returns to prove that they are eligible. The average household income of a family of four with a child at one of their high schools is just $36,000 (pound;22,175) a year.

The other requirements to win a place are that pupils are able to participate in the work programme from day one and have a realistic chance, through hard work, of securing a place on a two- or four-year college course. Students do not need to have outstanding academic credentials, but they do need to have solid literacy and numeracy skills. If pupils have learning difficulties or require remedial classes to reach basic standards, they are unlikely to be offered a place. With high schools starting from the age of 14, the network relies on pupils being ready to work - both in corporate America and in order to cram a full high school curriculum into just four days of study a week.

Birdsell insists that the schools are not cherry-picking students based on their academic abilities, but says they select on a "desire to succeed". That said, strict discipline and pressure to perform leads to students dropping out each year, meaning that only the determined remain to graduate.

Just the job

Andy Laureano, who attended the first Cristo Rey high school in the Hispanic Pilsen and Little Village area of Chicago, which suffers high levels of gang violence, says that the school gave him a route out of his neighbourhood.

"Had I not got a place, I would have ended up joining a gang and ended up on the streets," Laureano says. "That culture is so prevalent that you could not escape it."

Laureano recounts seeing drive-by shootings and gang initiation beatings as a child and sometimes hears about former elementary school classmates who are now gang members or in prison. But for him, the work programme and the support he received from teachers at the school proved a turning point, and in 2010 he graduated from the University of San Francisco with a degree in English literature.

"The work programme teaches you a lot about how to behave professionally, but also skills like networking and how to build a rapport with everyone you meet," says Laureano, who is now working for Cristo Rey's alumni network.

While the schools are Catholic in their "mission" and are supported by the Church, places are not dependent on faith: around 40 per cent of current pupils are not from Catholic homes. "We are doing this because we are Catholic, not because the students are," is how Birdsell puts it.

Some of the tenets of the Cristo Rey system - namely that it selects pupils by both income and academic ability - could prove problematic in transferring the network to the UK state sector. A marginal expansion of selective education on this side of the pond seems likely, but the opening of new grammar school campuses in affluent parts of Kent is a world away from what Cristo Rey is trying to achieve with pupils from areas of severe urban deprivation.

Birdsell is pragmatic enough to know that the system would need to be adapted. If the schools took children from age 11, it could give them time to ensure they were ready for work at age 14 or 16, he suggests. And while means-testing may not be possible, establishing schools in poor areas would still allow them to work with significant numbers of children from deprived homes.

The other option, which Birdsell is also keen to explore, is to operate in the private sector, giving Cristo Rey the freedom to more closely replicate its American experience. In that scenario, the earnings that pupils generated could be ploughed back into the school to cover the costs of education, as they are in the US. If Cristo Rey were able to set up a school in the state sector, the earnings could be invested in a fund that would contribute to pupils' university tuition fees.

All these details need to be worked out in a feasibility study, which would have to be carried out by a group or charity based in the UK, Birdsell says. He hopes to have identified a partner and for that study to be completed within the next three years.

The Catholic Association for Racial Justice is one group that has held discussions with Cristo Rey and supports its aims, although it is not ready to commit to the project. "We are very interested in the model and are exploring it in the context of the wider question of how to offer quality education to marginalised communities," says Richard Zipfel, one of the trustees of the charity.

In the US, Cristo Rey has attracted the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other philanthropic groups, which together have contributed tens of millions of dollars to the project. Melinda Gates, after a visit in 2007 to the first Chicago school - which opened its doors in 1996 - is reported to have said that it was "magical". "What you see is that hope, that optimism," she added. "You've got to ask . can (Cristo Rey's principles) be embodied at a public school?"

The Education and Employers Taskforce, a UK charity that aims to build partnerships between businesses and schools, released a report on work experience last month, which was highly critical of the opportunities available to pupils here. Work experience fails to "stretch the career horizons" of young people and, crucially, the system is still heavily reliant on placements being organised through pupils' families or existing social networks, it said. It also, unsurprisingly, found a "significant correlation" between confusion over career options and pupils becoming Neet (not in education, employment or training) between the ages of 16 and 18.

Given these issues and the seemingly intractable problems related to overcoming stagnant social mobility, the Cristo Rey model offers some obvious attractions to the government. Ministers want to close the attainment gap for pupils from poor homes and improve their life chances. Even with the caveats of limited academic selection, Cristo Rey schools have gone some way to delivering on those aims, combining a focus on academic achievement with a vocational element that does not have students specialising in a set career path at a young age.

"I could never have imagined that I would have left my neighbourhood to study Beowulf in Old English at university," says Laureano. "But it was being surrounded by motivated, educated people both at school and on the work programme that opened up those kinds of opportunities for me."

Network numbers

24 - Number of Cristo Rey schools

6,500 - Number of students in the US

1996 - Year the first school opened

95% - Proportion of students from black or minority ethnic backgrounds

$36,000 - Average family income of a Cristo Rey student in a family of four

1,500 - Number of Corporate Work Study Program jobs

21 - Number of National University Partners

100% - Proportion of graduates accepted on to two- or four-year college courses.

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