An 'Exclusive' Private School, But Not Like You Think

The first in a two-part series on Detroit Cristo Rey High School

While most of their neighboring peers soaked in the last days of summer vacation, incoming students at Detroit Cristo Rey High School spent much of their time in training sessions before the academic year started on Aug. 29.

The payoff for their small sacrifice may end up being life changing. The proof is in the record, and in the students’ own stories.

“In Cristo Rey, we really believe we are an exclusive school but for different reasons,” said school President Mike Khoury.

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The school’s 315 students don’t come from wealth or privilege. Families seeking enrollment must demonstrate that their income falls below $15,000 per household member. It turns the notion of private schools as elite institutions upside down.

College Bound

Detroit’s deep educational woes are well documented. For most students, the outlook is bleak. The availability of charter schools has helped some, providing students on average with two to three months extra learning in key subjects each year. But access to high-quality options and better opportunities is uneven across the region and grade levels, while progress toward acceptable results remains painfully slow.

A May 2016 survey by the Mackinac Center estimates 21,000 available seats in existing Michigan private schools. The number of openings within reach of Detroit families is probably far smaller — not nearly enough to provide educational opportunity to all the city’s kids in need, nor enough to add much healthy competitive pressure to the system.

But some private schools continue to thrive. Located in the city’s southwest Mexicantown neighborhood, Detroit Cristo Rey High School is seeking to raise the standard. The school has celebrated five classes of graduating seniors since its opening in 2008. Every one of those 257 graduates has been accepted to college, with about 85 percent enrolling in a postsecondary institution.

Cristo Rey graduates have been accepted into local institutions like Wayne State University and Henry Ford Community College, as well as Michigan’s flagship state universities and several of the region’s historically Catholic colleges.

Neither of Edgar Servin’s parents completed a high school education, but he has his sights set on that and more. He has every reason to hope he will continue the school’s perfect record. A rising senior in the class of 2017, he will join all his classmates in applying to three different colleges by October. He said his preference would be to go to Oakland University in the suburban metro area. His goal is to become a mechanical engineer.

But for the lifelong native of southwest Detroit, his ambition and aspirations don’t end with a career. “When I’m grown, in 10 years maybe, I want to give back to the community, since I grew up here and I want to visually see the difference and impact that I make into society,” Edgar said.

Abigail Carter teaches Algebra 2 and precalculus to the school’s upperclassmen, including Servin. She began teaching at Cristo Rey in 2015, after working in a diverse set of public school classrooms. “Cristo Rey has the most unique positive and supportive atmosphere in a school that I have ever seen,” she said.

“The School That Works”

Detroit Cristo Rey styles itself as “the school that works.” A unique arrangement offers students valuable workplace experience and makes tuition much more affordable.

Following a model aligned with the national Cristo Rey Network’s 32 schools, the Corporate Work Study Program gives a four-year student the equivalent of one year’s worth of full-time, entry-level professional experience. Students are released from the regular academic schedule five days a month on a rotating schedule to work at an off-site job assignment.

Detroit Cristo Rey’s three biggest corporate partners are General Motors, DTE Energy and Fiat Chrysler, though opportunities also exist with smaller firms in the areas of health care and law. Servin has gained a head start on an engineering career with the hands-on work he’s doing for Dearborn Mid-West Company in Taylor.

“In their neighborhood, [our students] may not encounter a lot of people who’ve gone to college and had a successful career,” Khoury said. “But now one day a week, they are in a job environment where they are working with college graduates who are very successful and have become mentors to our students, and our students quickly begin to see the value of a college education.”

In all, 65 participating businesses provide low-income students experiences and connections that give them a leg up if they persist in their educational careers. Cristo Rey gives incoming students a head start on the workforce experience with three weeks of August training sessions that impart everything from the proper way to shake hands and tie a necktie to using basic office software.

The money students earn on the job covers more than half of the school’s operating budget. Philanthropic support underwrites another significant portion. (Money from the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation and national partners like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was essential to getting the school off the ground.)

As a result, the typical annual tuition burden falls between $600 and $800. This practice lines up with the vision of Cristo Rey Network founder Father John P. Foley, who believes that students tend to benefit more when even the most struggling families have some level of direct investment in the school.

“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,’” noted Khoury.

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