May 1, 2016

At Cristo Rey in Baton Rouge, new Catholic high school unlike most others

Steven Earl and Vonncedric Dixon, friends since third grade, are trying to decide where to go to high school.

The boys, who attend the small Gardere Community Christian School, went to 4000 St. Gerard Ave. on April 21 to sit down for interviews at a prospective school.That address is the former home of Redemptorist High School. The campus is now in the hands of a much different Catholic school, Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School, set to open for the 2016-17 school year. While the boys are more circumspect, Earl’s mother and Dixon’s grandmother, who accompanied them to the interview, made it clear they’ve already settled on Cristo Rey.“Every time you call, someone picks up the phone and has an answer right away,” said Edna James, Earl’s mother. “Or, if you leave a message, they call you right back. Some schools, they don’t call you at all.”Cristo Rey representatives quizzed Earl and Dixon not only on their ability to handle school — Cristo Rey expects all of its students to enroll in college — but also how well they can handle a job.Cristo Rey, which is Spanish for Christ the King, is a network of 30 schools in 19 states. The schools recruit students whose families’ income is less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line. Students arrive on average two years behind their peers academically. The school is premised on the belief that school combined with a white-collar work experience puts young men and women on a sound path to a successful future.To meet that end, the school recruits companies to hire the students. Each student, all of whom must be 14 years old by the time school starts, works at least one full day each week and their pay goes to the school to help offset their tuition.The rest of the tab is covered through available public financing for private schools, private fundraising and heavily discounted tuition of no more than $1,200 a year.When the students are not working, they go to school, cramming five days of high school coursework into four days of classes.The prospect of working and going to school at the age of 14 didn’t phase Earl and Dixon. Earl said he’d work any job. Dixon had only one stipulation: “Blood. I don’t do blood.”Persuading employers to employ a 14-year-old has required an extended period of persuading and hand-holding.After a year of canvassing, school organizers persuaded 40 white-collar employers to sign letters of intent. They include medical practices, law firms, government agencies, nonprofits, car dealerships and marketing firms. Stacie Williams, Cristo Rey’s corporate work study director, is working to turn these commitments into signed contracts.“The most challenging aspect of it is wrapping their minds around working with 14-year-olds,” Williams said.Harry “Skip” Phillips Jr., a partner with Taylor Porter law firm, was an early adopter. A father of two children, both of whom attended Redemptorist, Phillips said he got the bug in spring 2015 when he went to listen to the Rev. John Foley, a Chicago native and Jesuit priest, who came to Baton Rouge to sell local businesses on the program. Foley launched the first Cristo Rey high school in 1996.Phillips has since become a member of Cristo Rey’s board of directors and has been one of the school’s go-to people in helping Baton Rouge businesses see the value in participating.At first, though, it was not obvious how the venerable law firm, founded in 1912, would make it work.“Someone said, ‘What would you do with a 14-year-old?’ ” Phillips said. “All of us have had 14-year-olds and we thought, ‘Would we hire our own kid?’ ”But as the attorneys thought it through, they realized they had enough low level administrative work — which in years past, high school and college students have performed — to keep Cristo Rey students busy.The law firm also has other pluses. Its attorneys and staff tend to start young and stay until they retire.“We have a lot of longevity here,” Phillips said. “We thought we could be a nurturing environment and that we would be a good fit.”“I hope (the students) will see what being successful looks like,” Phillips said. “They will see the amount of effort that has to go into having a successful career. We don’t do manual labor, but we work pretty hard.”At 4000 St. Gerard Ave., the omnipresent emerald green and white of the Redemptorist Wolves that covers many buildings on the campus is steadily being replaced by Cristo Rey blue — the new school has yet to settle on a mascot.Workers with Baton Rouge-based Milton J. Womack Inc. are renovating several Redemptorist classrooms. Plans also call for the creation of a new main entrance through the school’s library.The old north Baton Rouge high school, which had as many as 900 students at one time, isonly being partially used at first. Cristo Rey plans to start this fall with about 80 to 100 ninth-graders — recruiting is still underway — but plans to grow to at least 400 students over time.“It’s really more space than we need,” said Jim Llorens, Cristo Rey Baton Rouge’s presidentand former chancellor of Southern University.The name Cristo Rey at first prompted head-scratching, but after two years of publicity for the school in Baton Rouge that’s no longer a problem.“I very seldom get blank looks,” he said. “People have heard of us.”Aimee Wiles is principal of the new school. She arrives with a résumé remarkably well suited for her new job.A native of Gonzales, she attended Catholic schools all the way, graduating from St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge, before moving to LSU for college. After graduating from LSU, she became a teacher at Catholic schools in Baton Rouge, including four years at Redemptorist.Looking for a change, she moved to Chicago in 2004 and saw an opening teaching social studies and English at the original Cristo Rey high school, the one Foley had founded eight years earlier.“All I knew is the school was 100 percent Latino and they had some kind of work-study program,” she said.While it was a challenge fitting all the necessary instruction during the days that students weren’t working, Wiles came to value the growing maturity she saw in her working students.“It was very interesting in that the students handled themselves much more professionally than the students I had taught before,” she said.Almost every student who graduates from a Cristo Rey goes on to college. The organization also has support staff for students once they get to college to help them get to graduation day.For Wiles, it was clear that Cristo Rey offers students a ladder to a better life, one they weren’t going to have at their big neighborhood high school in Chicago.“If they weren’t with us, they went to a public school down the street where only 30 percent of the students graduated,” Wiles said.She ended up spending eight years at the Cristo Rey high school, working as a teacher and administrator, and then spent another year at a Cristo Rey feeder school. In 2013, she returned to Baton Rouge and worked for two years as an assistant principal at St. Michael The Archangel High School.Now, she’s back, not only to Cristo Rey, but to the Redemptorist campus where she previously taught.It’s a busy job. Cristo Rey’s school days are longer than other high schools and the 2016-17 school year will end June 9, three weeks later than other high schools in Baton Rouge.She said classroom technology has improved over the years, allowing teachers to better manage the challenge of fitting in all the required classes and still leaving room for students to work at off-campus jobs.Even so, Cristo Rey students will have tradeoffs. The time constraints, and small size of the student body, means no football, though the school plans to offer other sports, including basketball.A key feature of the Cristo Rey model is that not only do students work, but they can be fired as well, just like any other job. The high school will line up a second job, but for students canned a second time, they’re not only out of work, they have to find a new high school.To help students get ready for work, Cristo Rey will hold a three-week session in July to train them on the rudiments of office work, including how to handle Microsoft Office software, but also so-called “soft skills” which can be as simple as how to answer the phone.“Some of them, they are so shy, they could not even look you in the eye or shake your hand,” Wiles said of some students when they first arrived at the school.She remembers an exceedingly shy Cristo Rey student years ago who was fired from his first job. At his second job, he made the most of it. He learned how to be more outgoing and was soon tackling much more advanced work projects. By his senior year “you couldn’t shut him up,” Wiles said.“They get an opportunity to redeem themselves, and that’s good,” she said.

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