Schooling Outside the Box: State Bans Aid to Private Innovators Like This School

At Detroit Cristo Rey, 'They begin to see ... careers that are possible to them'

Detroit Cristo Rey is a college preparatory, private school — exclusive, but not in a way most people expect. Students must have a certain family income to enroll there — that is, the income must be less than a certain figure.

“As a result, the average family income of our students is about $30,000 a year,” said Cristo Rey President, Michael Khoury.

To understand how families living near the federal poverty level can afford private school, we need to recognize what drives parents to seek out the school in the first place.

“My mom did not finish high school nor did my dad, so what she wants me to do is get a good job and finish college or university and just be better than what she was when she was growing up,” said student Edgar Servin.

That still isn't the full explanation, though: Servin could have gone to a regular public school or charter school that wouldn’t have charged a penny. But he feels there is something special at Cristo Rey that will give him an edge in life: The way the school combines education with work experiences to make the academic lessons relevant for students.

“If you want a set job in the future and get a good education and work experience, you should come to Detroit Cristo Rey High School,” he said.

It is the work experience that makes the school unique and explains how it has attracted 290 students from low-income backgrounds. Students are given the chance to work for most of their tuition. Five days a month, students leave school for an 8-hour day at a designated worksite, where they can work alongside college graduates.

“The idea of going to college becomes more meaningful to the students. Many of our students will be first-generation college attendees. In their neighborhood, they may not encounter a lot of people who’ve gone to college and had a successful career,” said Khoury.

“They begin to see how college can be appropriate to them and they see careers that are possible to them if they go to college,” he added.

Servin works at Dearborn Midwest in Taylor, a company that designs and builds industrial conveyor belt systems. That’s where he determined he’d like to pursue mechanical engineering.

“The first day, in the summer, when they begin teaching us how to be in the business world, they teach us and give us options about what we like to do, like I like Algebra, so they offered engineering. I like to deal with cars and so they assigned me to that particular job,” said Servin.

The school strives to ensure students succeed at their jobs. For three weeks in August, students are given basic job training, like how to greet fellow employees, how to tie a tie and how to use computer office programs. After Labor Day, they begin their work assignments. Each day, 25 percent of the students leave school and board Cristo Rey vans for their worksite.

Because students are off-site and on-the-job 40 hours a month, the school has a longer day and school year than most. Its college prep curriculum has students taking classes in subjects such as Latin and advanced mathematics. Khoury says since the school opened in 2008, every student has been accepted into college and 85 percent enroll. Cristo Rey also follows those alumni through college, to make sure they graduate.

“We consciously stay in touch with our students. I go visit the campuses, take our students out for dinner and hear how they’re doing. We invite our students back for reunions so we can ask, ‘How prepared were you, how could we have done better?” said Khoury.

It’s not just the follow-up at college and the work experience that propels Cristo Rey students. It’s the culture. Specifically, the culture created when the school requires students to earn their keep.

Abigail Carter noticed the difference when she started teaching at Cristo Rey last year after teaching in a public school for several years.

“They are respectful from the get-go and they come ready to learn, knowing that it is a privilege to be there,” said Carter.

Despite their low family incomes, Cristo Rey parents do pay something for tuition, most around $600 a year.

“There are several reasons why that is important,” said Khoury. “First, we want them to have equity in their child’s education. It’s important that they’re willing to make a commitment to their child’s education. And, I think it’s for their sense of self-worth and dignity, so when their child receives their diploma from Detroit Cristo Rey, that family can correctly say, ‘We paid for that education,’” said Khoury.

Unlike 25 states, including Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, Michigan offers no public support to families whose children attend private schools. A 1970 state constitutional amendment targeting “parochiaid” for Catholic schools has been interpreted broadly to bar any public support for private schools.

At the federal level, Mackinac Center Director of Education Policy Ben DeGrow says that the U.S. Supreme Court has found states can give parents money that ends up being used at religious schools. To comply with the court's rulings, the money must be open for use at both secular and religious schools, as decided by parents, not government officials.

“And it is something that unfortunately tends to limit the conversation on how we can help students, including those from Cristo Rey High School who are from low-income families and how we can help them access a quality education of their choosing,” said DeGrow.

Cristo Rey is part of a network that has high schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia. It would like to expand in Michigan but opening more schools here requires outside funding.

“On a national level, the Walton Foundation has stepped in and is supporting Cristo Rey in other states but they’ve been pretty clear that they will only support Cristo Rey schools in states with choice, whether that is vouchers, tax credits or other incentives,” said Khoury.

A 2000 ballot initiative to reverse Michigan’s constitutional ban on government support for private schools was not successful. The National Education Association teachers union and the National School Boards Association both oppose school vouchers.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.