- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has jumped into the pro-school-choice arena with an $18.9 million grant to give inner-city Latino teens a chance to attend Catholic preparatory schools in 12 cities.

“Most poor families don’t have quality options” outside their neighborhood public schools, said Tom Vander Ark, education executive director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle, in announcing the grant with B.J. Cassin, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist.

“Our work is addressing the supply problem. Poor and minority families need more good options — public school, charter school and private school options,” said Mr. Vander Ark.

The Cristo Rey Network, which since 1996 has opened four Jesuit high schools with a work-study program for students to raise their own tuition, was awarded the grant because its schools embody the characteristics of strong high schools that the foundation wants to foster.

“Small, personalized, academically rigorous college-preparatory programs with high expectations for all students, a strong work ethic, and a culture of respect and responsibility” [are desirable], said Mr. Vander Ark.

Mrs. Gates, who attended a Catholic high school in Plano, Texas, was inspired by Cristo Rey, he said.

Cristo Rey schools are operating in Chicago, Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles, and there are “seven schools in the wings,” said the Rev. John P. Foley, president of the network’s first high school in the Latino quarter on Chicago’s southwest side.

The schools have local business partners who provide jobs to students and pay Cristo Rey $6,250 per student to make yearly tuition affordable to low-income families, Father Foley said. Each student’s family pays $2,200.

“They’re all entry-level clerical jobs,” he said. Employers hire students in groups of four. “They lean on each other and they support each other.”

Students attend classes four days each week and work at their jobs for one day. Father Foley said students actually learn more in four days than they would by just going to classes for the full week because the jobs improve their self-confidence.

“It opens up new horizons for the student. They have their own desk, they’re treated like an adult, the world’s opened up to them,” he said.

“Our students come back [from their day at work] feeling so much better about themselves and life in general. They study harder than ever.”

Mr. Cassin and his wife launched the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation with a $22 million gift in 2000 to support Cristo Rey’s work-study program. He said a school with 400 students sharing 100 jobs receives $2.5 million from participating businesses, which pays 70 percent of the school’s annual operating expenses.

Without the salaries from students’ jobs, such a school would have to have a $50 million endowment with a 5 percent distribution rate to operate, Mr. Cassin said.

The work-study program additionally provides students “valuable mentoring and career guidance” throughout their high school years, he said. “One-hundred percent of the 2002 [Cristo Rey] class was accepted to colleges, and the students earned $100 million in scholarships.”

Also, Mr. Vander Ark said, Cristo Rey schools have achieved better than 85 percent graduation rates over the past five years, compared with a 55 percent national graduation rate for black and Latino high school students, according to a Manhattan Institute study in 2002.

“We’ve learned a lot from Catholic schools. We think this model is a great way to sustain and, in some ways, restore urban Catholic education” throughout the country, he said.

The Gates foundation has already committed more than $450 million in grants to expand school options for inner-city high school students.

The $18.9 million to start additional Cristo Rey schools in Denver; New York City’s Harlem; Cambridge and Lawrence, Mass.; Cleveland; Tucson, Ariz.; and Waukegan, Ill., includes $9.9 million from the Gates foundation and $9 million from the Cassin foundation, the donors said.

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