Too many school systems, too many charter management organizations, and far too many educational entrepreneurs are looking to philanthropy to sustain their broken business models. It should be the other way around: Schools should seek new ways to contribute to the economy. For our country’s economic health as well as international competitiveness, U.S. businessmen should be leaning harder than ever on U.S. schools to produce a higher-quality product at a much lower cost. Instead, we continue to spend over $600 billion annually doing a generally miserable job of educating children 5 to 18 years old. Then we raise billions more in philanthropy to create new alternative schools that for the most part would not be necessary if more of the original investment in education delivered the goods.
Looked at in this way, the looming budget deficits that are likely to plague state and local governments for years to come represent the most potent opportunity to effect real education reform that we have seen in decades. School systems for the first time are being forced to do more with less and to put greater emphasis on productivity. School leaders now have to welcome new technologies and new operating models that can be used to educate more children to a higher standard without calling for more money.
It is for these reasons that the Cristo Rey Network, a group of 24 Catholic schools that serve low-income minority students in 17 states and the District of Columbia, is among the most compelling stories in modern-day schooling. Cristo Rey has done at least three things most urban schools fail to do: It operates on a financially sustainable business model; it educates to a high standard students whom the public-school system has left behind; and it encourages its students to develop real-world skills that will help them succeed in college and then on the job after they graduate.
“The educational quality of the program is fundamentally different in kind from what anyone else offers,” says Christopher Connor, the CEO of Sherwin-Williams, “because these students are employable. They have work skills and life skills to match that come through the work-study program.” This work-study program just might be a breakthrough innovation that other schools, districts, and states can learn from.
Cristo Rey students go to school four days a week. On the fifth day, starting in ninth grade, they rotate as members of a small team into full-time professional positions in corporate America. Companies pay on average $27,000 a year for each full-time equivalent that they employ. These jobs fund 40 to 70 percent of school operations, depending on the school, while introducing a new depth of instruction and accountability unattainable in a traditional classroom. “Math suddenly matters when you have to crunch numbers to help a company figure out its gross margin in a certain part of the country,” says Connor. “And our employees love working with these kids. They come in articulate, bright, well dressed, and ready to work. For our part, we have to be good adult influences in their lives. It lifts everyone’s game.”
This partnership is clearly creating value for both parties. Every year since 2005, Sherwin-Williams has increased the number of Cristo Rey students it employs, providing meaningful revenue to St. Martin de Porres High School on Cleveland’s East Side while helping the Cleveland-based corporation operate its 3,500 stores nationwide. Meanwhile, working in a chemical company, the students are given assignments of real consequence — accounting, finance, inventory, and waste analysis, for example. After a day on the job, they return to school passionate about their studies and invigorated by the benefits that come from performing meaningful work.
The genius of Cristo Rey is how it taps into the innovative spirit and optimism of corporate America to create this great social good for underprivileged children at no additional cost to society. Cristo Rey provides rich and regular opportunities for its students to acquire the skills, relationships, and professional behaviors of successful adults by exposing them to the rigorous expectations of the professional workplace. What corporate America has to learn from Cristo Rey, meanwhile, is that to get the work force it wants out of our schools, it may have to bring many more high-school students into the work force so they can see what is expected of them.