Innovative practice - A head start

29th March 2013 at 00:00
Using a work-study scheme to give low-income students a taste of white-collar jobs and fund their education

The background

In 1996 a group of Jesuits founded Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, Illinois, as a way of giving students from low-income families an affordable private education that would prepare them for college.

With the help of a number of local companies the school established an innovative work-study programme, placing students in entry-level jobs in white-collar firms for one day a week.

The school soon grew into a movement and there are now 25 Cristo Rey schools in a network spanning the US, serving 7,400 students and partnering with 1,700 companies.

The project

Every Cristo Rey Network student is enrolled on a four-year college preparatory course, which includes one day a week working in a white-collar professional setting to fund the majority of their tuition.

The companies involved include law firms, banks, accountancy firms, hospitals and other professional corporate partners.

Students work in job-sharing teams to cover a standard business week. Academic schedules are structured so that students can work without missing a class.

The scheme allows students to receive an education they would otherwise be unable to afford, and gives them the opportunity to gain valuable work experience and skills they can use in later life. It also helps them to make connections between the classroom and the world of work.

"The model is addressing the educational problem in our country," Father John P. Foley, network chair emeritus, says. "It's helping kids who don't have a chance, the kids who are marginalised and don't have the opportunities other kids have. Our motto is 'transforming urban America one student at a time', and I think that's really happening."

Tips from the scheme

Look for companies and jobs that will motivate the students. In some instances it can simply be motivating for them to work in an area of the town or city that they would not usually have access to.

Supervise it carefully. Companies working with Cristo Rey students fill in a monitoring form every day. More formal appraisals take place three times a year and there are regular site visits from school staff.

Make the students feel they are needed and their work is valued, as though they are colleagues and not just on work experience.

Evidence it works

"The programme has a transformative impact on our students. It gives them a lot of self-confidence and the motivation to stay in school," Father Joseph P. Parkes, president of Cristo Rey New York High School, says.

"They come from areas of our city (whose residents) don't often travel to (business areas like) Midtown or Wall Street, and here they are working in these white-collar firms being treated like valued colleagues."

Out of the students who graduated between 2008 and 2011, 85 per cent have enrolled in college. The Cristo Rey Network was one of the winning projects at the prestigious Wise Awards 2012 at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar.

The project

Approach: A work-study programme giving students from low-income families paid work experience in local companies

Started: 1996

The Schools

Name: Cristo Rey Network, 25 private Catholic high schools

Location: US, nationwide.

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