For Maritza Contreras, the Cristo Rey experience began with seeing high school kids in her neighborhood on the way to school all dressed up. She was about nine at the time and the idea of going to school in your best clothes was “the weirdest thing I ever heard of.” But she was attracted to it. She made it her goal to go to Cristo Rey High School, a private school in her Chicago neighborhood where teens were required to work part time in real jobs in real work places and to aim to go to and succeed in college so that they could become adults working in places like the ones where they did their student placements.
For Contreras, Cristo Rey meant being asked for the first time about her college plans. It meant learning a set of skills and expectations that opened avenues for her, including small but important things such as how to shake hands firmly while making eye contact with someone.
And it meant enrolling in Marquette University with major scholarship support, graduating cum laude with a degree in nursing, and setting aside her nursing ambitions “for now” to get involved in helping the community as director of administrative management services for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin.
Cristo Rey has grown also. Starting in 1996 with the school Contreras attended, there are now 30 Christo Rey schools across the country. A local school, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, opened this fall with 129 ninth graders, almost all of them low-income and benefitting from the state’s private school voucher program. The school is based in a church in West Milwaukee, just south of Miller Park.
“This is about justice,” Andrew Stith, president of Cristo Rey Jesuit, said Wednesday during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall. Stith and Contreras, who has been involved as a volunteer helping to launch the school, talked about the school and how it aims to get low-income students on track to successful lives as adults.
It’s too early to have a record in Milwaukee, but Stith said Cristo Rey graduates overall are completing college at about twice the rate of comparable low income college students.
The school’s programs is focused not only on high academic standards but on giving students experience in work places, starting from their freshmen year, when they most are about 14 years old. Stith said all of the students have work placements, generally with four students sharing a full time job. Twenty-three Milwaukee area employers have Cristo Rey students working for them. The pay the students receive goes to the school as a part of covering the costs of the program.
Stith said the school does all it can to help students succeed in class and at work, but teens need to be able to handle the work placements, including consistent attendance, to succeed at the school. Overall, he said students rise to the high expectations set for them. Stith said he has seen students come into a Cristo Rey school without skills needed in a workplace, but who have developed into successes.
Stith said the school plans to grow a grade a year and reach an enrollment of 400 to 500 students. One challenge will be finding enough job placements for all the students.
Contreras said going to Cristo Rey was “by far the best experience of my life,” opening the door to Marquette, her job, and a bright future. Now, she is part of a team that is aiming to have similar impact on hundreds of kids in the Milwaukee area who are like the teen she was.
Video of the hour-long program may be viewed by clicking here.