Wednesday, September 16, 2009

First Jesuit Cristo Rey School Opens in the South

by Susan Branda Martin

Fifty years after the founding of the first Jesuit school in the city of Houston, the Jesuits and their lay collaborators are poised to once again found another school in the same city with a focus on getting the poorest and most-at-risk children of Houston ready for college.  Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School of Houston, the first co-educational school sponsored by the Jesuits of the New Orleans Province, will open its doors to 100 freshmen on August 10, 2009.  Its inaugural class of young men and women will participate in one of the most exciting educational models in the country - the Cristo Rey Network that consists of 23 schools across the nation.

To watch a video from News2Houston on the opening of Cristo Rey Jesuit, click on the picture below.

History of the Cristo Rey Network
         The genesis of the Cristo Rey Network began more than a decade ago in Chicago’s Little Pilsen neighborhood, a low-income area largely populated by Mexican immigrants.  The Cristo Rey model, the brainchild of Fr. John Foley, SJ and his Jesuit and lay colleagues, emerged from the realization that the expense of a Jesuit college preparatory education was prohibitive to economically disadvantaged families living in this Chicago barrio.
         Fr. Foley and his team turned to corporations around the city for help and asked them to provide entry-level corporate jobs for his students whose salaries would in turn help pay for the cost of their tuition.  Fr. Foley and his team developed and pioneered an economic and educational program that would be accessible to the poorest families in the city.  The result was the innovative Corporate Intern Program, sometimes referred to as the Corporate Work-Study Program.

        The Corporate Work-Study Program allows students to earn approximately 70 percent of their tuition by working for corporations one day per week.  The students gain first-hand knowledge of the professional, corporate world while also attending a school which will provide them with the education and critical thinking skills needed to perform well in college and eventually in a career.  The students are not the only ones to benefit; the sponsors add to their workforce a group of eager, enthusiastic students working at a reduced cost. In addition, the sponsors gain the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped to break the cycles of poverty.
         There are currently 23 schools in the Cristo Rey Network, with Cristo Rey Jesuit in Houston being its newest member.  The network has more than 1,250 corporate work-study sponsors that employ more than 5,000 students. Over 99 percent of the students who graduate from Cristo Rey schools have been accepted into two and four year colleges, including Georgetown University, Loyola University and Brown University.

The Beginnings of Cristo Rey Jesuit

          Cristo Rey Jesuit in Houston was made a reality when the Jesuits of the New Orleans Province decided they wanted to support the opening of a Cristo Rey model school in their region.  They identified several potential cities, including Houston.  Advisory groups were formed in each city to conduct feasibility studies to identify lower income communities, the level of student and parent interest in a college prep education with a work-study component and the level of corporate support necessary to sustain the school.           In 2006, the Houston advisory group was formed.  They conducted the feasibility study where they first identified the neighborhoods that fell within the income bracket.  During the study more than 1,300 interviews were conducted with middle school students and their families in those identified neighborhoods.  The study confirmed the need and the desire of the families for a Jesuit college preparatory school.  The advisory committee then began to present the Cristo Rey story to individuals and representatives of companies throughout Houston asking for their support.  Over 30 companies signed letters of intent to provide jobs to the first class of students.  The advisory committee also secured over $2 million in donations, grants and pledges, with nine major foundations committing financial support for the school.             

        Having proven the great need and community support for a Cristo Rey school in Houston, the Jesuits of the New Orleans Province approved Houston as the home of the next Cristo Rey school - Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School of Houston.

Creating Cristo Rey Jesuit with Community Support

            Cristo Rey Jesuit, located in southeast Houston, near Hobby Airport, is in the midst of a very busy start-up year.  With the naming of the school’s founding president, Fr. Antonio, “T.J.”, Martinez, SJ the plans for the school began immediately. After having received an undergraduate degree at Boston College, Fr. Martinez finished with five graduate degrees, including a law degree from the University of Texas and a graduate degree in school leadership and administration from Harvard University.             
            Once Martinez arrived in Houston, he quickly went to work with the advisory board and negotiated the purchase of an old educational facility on the nearly nine acre piece of property in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston.  The inaugural Board of Trustees was next named, meeting continuously since December 2007.  At this initial meeting, the Board approved the funding for moderate renovations of the purchased facility which will provide a safe, competitive and supportive learning environment.  Fretz Construction is generously managing these renovations on a pro bono basis.
             Martinez set out to find experts in the field to comprise his founding senior administrative leadership team.  He first hired Dr. Catherine Thomas as the principal.  Dr. Thomas brings 20 years of experience to the job and currently heads the admissions and faculty recruitment campaigns.
            “Any president, young or old, experienced or new, would be envious for the experience and dedication my leadership team brings to our mission,” Martinez said. “I went after the best and with God’s grace, I got it.”
             At an event in March, the school unveiled its logo and crest at a cocktail reception for all of its donors, corporate sponsors and the many volunteers who have become involved over the past few months.  BrandExtract LLC, a branding and marketing company in Houston, generously devoted their time to develop not only the school’s logo and crest, but the entire branding campaign.
             Since the March event, many more people in the community have stepped forward to offer their services to the start up of Cristo Rey Jesuit.  The school has received in-kind donations that have helped in all aspects of the opening.  The National Terrazzo Tile and Marble Company owner, Victor Longo, donated the installation of the new school crest in the entrance making an impressive and colorful impact to all visitors.  All school furnishing have been donated by individuals and companies throughout Houston.  Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, the first Houston Jesuit high school, has been extremely generous in their support of their new brother school and the Cristo Rey Jesuit Women’s Guild, a volunteer group from all over the city, help by answering phones, making copies, updating mailing lists, stuffing envelopes and organizing events.

Securing Business Support

            The Houston business community has given a strong message of support to Cristo Rey Jesuit’s Corporate Intern Program model.  The school has 25 employment contracts signed by companies that represent Houston’s diverse employment industry. The response has been so positive that the school had to develop a “2010-2011 wait list” made up of companies eager to be Corporate Work-Study Sponsors.  Three Houston universities, Rice University, University of St. Thomas and University of Houston, are partnering with the Corporate Work-Study Training Camp, a mandatory 4-week camp created to prepare the students to be successful in their entry-level jobs, by teaching the computer training courses on their campuses.
             “We have seen the impact that Cristo Rey has had in other communities and felt strongly that Houston would embrace the Cristo Rey model,” said Ron Martin, a member of the board of trustees as well as a corporate work-study sponsor. “It is humbling to know that Cristo Rey Jesuit will forever change the lives of 100 students who begin our inaugural class this fall and the many more who will follow.”

Recruiting Students to Cristo Rey Jesuit

             While the jobs have been relatively easy to secure, the recruitment of students has proven a bit more difficult.  It seems that this population of students and families are not in the habit of applying for schools which makes the process more time consuming than expected.Given the economy, the staff was preparing themselves for a more difficult time in finding job positions for their students. Enrolling the students was the last worry in their mind.  A final push to fill the freshman class with 100 students is being made with the staff, members of the board and volunteers who are helping canvas the surrounding neighborhoods by spreading the word about the school and its wonderful opportunity. They are confident that the inaugural class will be filled by the first day of corporate training camp on August 10.
             “The corporate training camp will culminate with the celebration of the Mass of the Holy Spirit on Thursday, September 3, 2009 with the Most Reverend Joseph A. Fiorenza, Archbishop Emeritus presiding and Fr. T.J. Martinez, SJ and Fr. Mark Lewis, SJ concelebrating,” Dr. Thomas said.  “This opening mass promises to celebrate the diversity of the school which mirrors the diversity of the city of Houston.  This celebration will mark the beginning of the school’s mission ‘…to empower students of all faiths from economically challenged families to reach their full potential’.”
             Martinez’s primary vision of the school is to provide a rigorous, first rate educational, moral and corporate environment that allows the students to re-imagine their futures as business, civic and religious leaders of Houston and beyond.  In a very real way, the students are our own “future at work.”
             “Many people ask, ‘Why would you at all be interested in being involved in the chaos of starting up a school particularly at this time?’” Martinez said.  “My grandfather came over from Mexico, became a citizen and had an opportunity to work his way through school. Because of this, he was able to send my dad to school and my dad sent me, without which I would never have been a Jesuit and now president of Cristo Rey Jesuit.”
            He added, “These kids are my grandfather all over again, making this mission not only one I believe in because I am a Jesuit priest, but one I believe in because it is my family’s story as well.”

Susan Branda Martin is the director of communications and public relations for Cristo Rey Jesuit in Houston. For more information about Cristo Rey Jesuit, visit 

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