Op-Ed By: Robert J. Birdsell

I am encouraged by the recent amount of media and public interest in urban education in this country.  From the media excitement surrounding “Waiting for Superman” to the news this week of Joel Klein’s departure from the New York  school system, we as a nation are beginning to realize the crisis facing our inner cities and we are finally beginning to pay attention.

Today, a black male growing up in most cities in America has a better chance of being incarcerated at the age of 25 than of having a four-year college degree.  For Hispanics ages 25-29, less than 10% who go on to college complete a degree.  These facts are a national disgrace that is beginning to be understood, and it is no wonder many experts are thinking that we need Superman to fix this crisis.

However, Superman did arrive fifteen years ago, and his name is Fr. John Foley, a Jesuit priest who spent 34 years teaching and running schools in Peru.  In 1995, he was called back to America to open a new school on the southwest side of Chicago.  This school was to serve only low income students with limited educational options.  The uniqueness of the school was that the students were to work one day a week in some of the best companies in Chicago – McKinsey & Co., Deloitte, DePaul University and Winston and Strawn, to name just a few of the firms that signed on to the program.  They worked in real jobs and their earnings paid for over half of the expenses of their education.

Fifteen years later, Fr. Foley’s original school, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, has resulted in a national movement.  The Cristo Rey Network was formed to replicate the school and ensure the quality of the new schools.  Thanks to the generosity of the Cassin Education Initiative Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, today there are 24 Cristo Rey Network schools serving over 6,500 students and working with over 1,500 corporate partners.  There are also nine other communities in various stages of starting a Cristo Rey Network school.

Even more impressive than this rapid growth are the results that Cristo Rey schools are achieving.  For the class of 2008, 100% of the graduates were accepted to college and, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, over 84% of those graduates have enrolled in college – more than twice the average for the population these schools serve.

Cristo Rey is a new innovation based on an old idea – that Catholic schools should provide students from low-income urban families with a high-quality education that develops their talent for success in college and beyond.  Furthermore, Cristo Rey is a new educational model – whereby we finance urban private schools through an innovative corporate work study program in which teams of students job-share full-time positions in professional settings, and thus develop skills, habits, experiences and dispositions necessary for long-term success.

Fr. Foley’s work over the past fifteen years has allowed thousands of young people to receive the quality education they and their parents dreamed of.  He has been fighting this crisis – just like Superman – for over 50 years, first in Peru and now in America.  So instead of waiting for Superman, those interested in true education reform have no further to turn than the local Cristo Rey Network school in their city.

Robert J. Birdsell is the President & CEO of the Cristo Rey Network

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