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The high school corporate America built

Most of the students at Cristo Rey in Baltimore live in poverty; but every graduate goes onto college

BALTIMORE – Three years of Keara Bates' childhood were spent in motels.

"I didn't trust anyone. I didn't believe I could be any more than a homeless little black girl," she said. "I came to school angry. I really did. I was very angry." 

Keara Bates says she and her Cristo Rey classmates are doing much better than her peers who attended public school.
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A lot of kids who grow up in poverty like Bates don't make it through high school. But Bates is now a senior in college. She credits her success to her high school, a private Jesuit school in Baltimore that touts small class sizes and strict discipline. Every graduate goes onto college.

The vast majority of students at Cristo Rey live in poverty, but they don't have to afford the tuition. A big part of the tab is picked up by more than 100 corporate donors. 

The high school is part of the Cristo Rey Network, a nationwide group of 28 private Jesuit schools that launched in Chicago in 1996. The Cristo Rey in Baltimore says the price of educating a pupil is around $14,000 a year, with corporate sponsors contributing $6,500, parents paying up to $2,500 and scholarship money – provided by nonprofits, foundations and private donors – covering the rest. Baltimore's public schools spent $16,600 per pupil in 2013.

Most major corporations with offices in Baltimore have joined the Cristo Rey program, donating both money and internships – exposing students to a world beyond their neighborhoods.

"They started a work ethic in us as soon as we started in ninth grade," Bates said. "And my friends in public school, they have a different mindset. A majority of them are not in college. But a lot of my friends that did graduate from Cristo Rey with me are doing amazing things."

Gilbert Mushayuma hopes to have a career in medicine.
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Gilbert Mushayuma, a son of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a junior and top of his Cristo Rey class. He works one day a week at Mercy Medical Center, a major downtown hospital, helping physical therapists with their patients. He recognizes how different his life is compared to many kids in his neighborhood.

"They’re just out in the street, just riding their bikes all day, all night," he said. "Going back home all late, sagging their pants, cussing, all that type of stuff. Drugs. And mostly I stay away from that because I know that that's not going to benefit me at all."

The admissions process is holistic: based on grades, as well as an interview and the student's discipline history. According to the Cristo Rey Network’s admissions criteria, the school “seeks students who demonstrate employability, motivation and academic potential.” 

Before joining Cristo Rey, Derrick Lifsey spent most of his career in public schools.
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"If you believe that you can achieve something, we have everything in this building,” said Derrick Lifsey, the dean of students. “If you come along for the ride, we'll invite you in."

But there's a snag to this success story: Not everybody at Cristo Rey makes it. In fact, one in four kids drops out, an almost identical graduation rate to the Baltimore city school system.

Lifsey says the school takes it very seriously when a student isn't succeeding at Cristo Rey; the principal parses out the issues with the parents and helps them select the right school for their child.

"That may mean they're back at their public schools," he said. "But quite often we get calls back where a student is enrolled in another private institution."

Monique Pressley, a radio host and attorney in Washington, D.C., says there's no way to measure the real harm of that drop out rate.

"I don't know that you can quantify disappointment and lost hope and diminished expectations …  if [a child's] hopes are raised in thinking that they're going to have a private school education and then they find that some adult – their parent or teachers – have to explain to them that they didn't have what it took in order to survive in that environment," she said.

Critics like Pressley also charge that this corporate money could be better spent improving public schools for all students, as opposed to siphoning the best and the brightest away.

"You normally would have students who have a great shot at entering college and are matriculating through the public school system," she said. "And [you] have parents who are also invested in not just their own students, their own child's education, but also investing into the public schools – you lose that involvement."

But for Lifsey, the key to the program's success, and its key tragedy, is that it only works by selecting the most motivated kids. Asked if he would expand Cristo Rey to all students if he had the power, Lifsey broke down into tears.

"Oh my Lord, it hurts. Because the easiest thing is to say yes," he said. "I want to bring every student, but I understand that there are some students who are willing to work, who are willing to put the time in. And we live in a society right now where there are others who are constantly trying to hurt those who want to achieve."  

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