School for low-income kids strikes a work-study balance

“Private school is for rich kids.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an objection to school choice along those lines, I could send my kids to private school.

But, jokes aside, the sentiment isn't true. There are scholarships and other tools for people of more modest means. And right here in Atlanta, there's even a school that only admits kids from low-income families.

Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School is that school. Its annual cost of attendance is about $17,500 per pupil, yet the most any of its students pay in tuition is $2,500. Where does the rest of the money come from?

Some comes from donors. For the rest, I'll borrow the tag line from that old Smith Barney commercial : They earn it.

Every Cristo Rey student spends five days a month working for one of 72 companies. The list reads like a who's who of Atlanta employers: Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Home Depot, et al.

Each company employs four students, who share what amounts to a full-time job. In exchange, it contributes $7,500 toward each student’s tuition. But that’s only one benefit of the program.

“More than the money, it is giving them incredible access to a life outside the circle of what they know right now,” explained Sarah Alvarez, director of communications and volunteer services at the school. “They start to realize, I can go here and work here, too.”

The model was pioneered almost 20 years ago in Chicago. Today there are 30 Cristo Rey schools nationwide . But while the work-study component is key to the business model, the real goal is to get students into college, many of them as the first in their families to do so. Last year, the network reports, all of its graduates met that goal.

Many students show up at Cristo Rey behind grade level, and the school employs a rigorous curriculum to catch them up. That includes religious studies, as you might expect from a decidedly Catholic school, but Cristo Rey is open to all comers. Just over half of the students at the Atlanta school aren’t Catholic, Alvarez said.

They are, however, on their way to being eminently employable. They don’t get make-work jobs. Jim Childs, of investment-banking firm Childs Advisory Partners, told me his students this year will help buying and selling companies. They’ll also create a database of potential clients: “We’re going to give them the project and let them come up with the plan,” he said.

Childs said the school — which trains them on workplace basics from answering the phone to using Microsoft Office and arranges their transportation from campus to work and back — will have them ready.

“Even at the best high schools in Atlanta, or the country, kids are not prepared to go into the workplace,” Childs said.

One wonders how many more students could consider a school like Cristo Rey if their share of the state's education funding followed them to the school of their choice. With an Education Savings Account like the one proposed in Georgia earlier this year, and passed in states such as Nevada and Arizona, they could put any leftover money toward extra tutoring, SAT test prep or, eventually, college expenses. Taxpayers would save in both k-12 and college spending.

It might also be the difference between having just one school in Atlanta catering to low-income families, and seeing others open elsewhere in the state.