Politics & Policy

Schools That Work, Literally

The Cristo Rey Network gives students invaluable real-world experience.

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.

Sascha Bopp, the recently named CEO of the privately held Crate & Barrel, suggests that such “apprenticeships” elevate the overall quality of the labor market. “Children gain advantages in maturity when they are exposed to the business world,” Bopp notes, “which ground them in their future business life, regardless of their life at home.” Bopp himself worked all through his university years in Germany. “Those experiences brought me to the U.S. and gave me opportunities I never would have gotten. Cristo Rey is doing the same thing. It is not only bringing better education to kids who don’t have access to it — it is giving them years of experience on the job. Their peers might not catch up to them.”

Listening to Bopp, you start to think that Cristo Rey actually represents a competitive advantage for Crate & Barrel. In January 2010, Bopp, then chief operations officer, was first presented with the idea of hiring a student team, and he immediately recognized the opportunity not as charity but as something that would benefit the company, if only he could find the right work for the students.

Fifty-five percent of Cristo Rey students are Hispanic. Crate & Barrel has three distribution centers with many Hispanic employees, and Bopp had identified at least 250 associates who prefer to communicate in Spanish. At the time, the company hosted an online exchange, in English, for sharing knowledge and best practices. But Bopp wanted all 7,000 part- and full-time associates on the network, including those who have limited Internet access beyond the corporate firewall. Non-salaried associates are not expected to work at home.

The solution was to set up a new social-networking site, called Crateworks, for the employees to share their best work practices. New Internet cafés were established in the distribution centers, and then a Cristo Rey student team was hired to translate the key blogs into Spanish. Once the students had helped establish the Spanish sub-site, their job was to monitor the exchange, log the key improvement ideas (especially those that surfaced in Spanish), and implement them. Since then their responsibilities have expanded to browsing external social-networking services and learning what the Spanish-language world is saying about the brand so that Crate & Barrel can serve those customers better.

“These students are providing value that no one else is,” Bopp adds, “so this is a real win-win. Social networking is just one such opportunity. The entire corporate world needs a new generation of employees to help them with this form of communication.”

Although Cristo Rey is admittedly an unconventional school model and its operations are mildly dependent on philanthropy, its students’ tremendous record of college placement and college success is manifestly driven by their own success in the workplace before they even go to college. Corporate America should take note of this if it wants to stop wasting its charitable dollars and begin investing in real educational solutions that will help create the work force of the future.

— Samuel Casey Carter is president of Carter Research, a professional-services firm in Washington, D.C., that provides strategy, new business development, implementation support, and operations consulting to the education industry.


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