Cristo Rey Network’s Expanding Vision for Student Success

Strong Catholic identity and strong academics are twin pillars of a Catholic educational enterprise that is helping needy students become college graduates.

Article main image

CHICAGO — The promise of Catholic education to give youth from poor and immigrant communities an education that would unlock the American dream was once underwritten by the sacrifices of teaching religious and clergy.

Now, the Cristo Rey Network is seeking to bring back that same promise of Catholic educational excellence to more than 10,000 youth from urban low-income families, thanks to its growing network of 32 Catholic schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia — all supported by its creative partnerships with the corporate and university worlds. The schools have 38 religious sponsors and endorsers, as well. 

Elizabeth Goettl, the former chief academic officer of the Cristo Rey Network, now steps into the role of the network’s president and CEO. In this interview with the Register, Goettl shares her vision for continuing Cristo Rey’s mission of providing a college-preparatory education to urban youth in schools that have strong Catholic identity, fostering academic excellence, and offering corporate work-study programs. 

 

What difference have you seen the Cristo Rey Network accomplish in the lives of students, their families and communities?

Well, getting low-income families into college is certainly a big accomplishment. We aim to do better at the outcomes we produce: getting students to and through college. We’re just about tripling the national college completion rate [for low-income students] right now, but that still isn’t sufficient for us. We want to do better there.

The other thing we’re doing that I think is serving our families and our students well is having all of our students participate in a corporate work-study program. It began at the first school, over 20 years ago, with an idea [from the question] of “How do you operate a Catholic, private, college-preparatory school that exclusively serves low-income families if you’re not going to charge tuition?” And so the corporate work-study program was born to basically figure out a way to pay the bills. But it quickly became so much more than that, with every student working in a professional job, one day a week, throughout the four years of high school — so they and their families can envision a different future; they can envision a future that, frankly, requires a college education. And that’s part of what has become a very important part of the work that we’ve done.

 

Cristo Rey puts this great emphasis on being ready for a college/university-level education. Are students also prepared for other options, such as trade schools?

We know that 100% of our students may not choose college, but our focus and our mission is to prepare students for college readiness. So we’re not trying to serve all populations, but that is the niche we’re trying to attract: students who think that they might want to transform their lives, and the lives of their families, through a college education.

 

When you served as chief academic officer, what best practices did put into place in Cristo Rey schools?

Well, I think the first is recognizing that students who come from high-poverty families can achieve at high levels, just like any other students — so developing a common mindset that we expect all of our students to achieve at high levels. Now, while some of them arrive at ninth grade ready for ninth-grade work, some of them, through no fault of their own, arrive with large deficits. Perhaps they didn’t have a chance to attend a quality school with quality instruction, so they may arrive at a seventh-grade level. But our job is to close the gap of underachievement and, at the same time, provide rigorous college-ready work.

So what we did was we established a common standards-based curriculum, so we’re very clear about what students will know and be able to do. We developed some common assessments so that we can measure how our students are doing in terms of college readiness. And, then, we shared some evidence-based practices. We know what works in classrooms, and if all the teachers at all the network schools also know about effective evidence-based instructional practices and use them in their classrooms, there’s a higher probability that we’ll get to all students achieving at high levels. So [we focus on] curriculum, assessment and instruction.

The other big area of focus is really leadership development. We know that good schools don’t exist without great leaders, so recruiting and retaining and developing strong school leaders, both principals and presidents, and work-study directors.

 

How do you see Cristo Rey Network’s growth in the near future? You’ve added on quite a few schools so far.

We have! Right now, we’re operating 32 schools. Our strategic plan sets a goal of 40 schools by 2020, and we actually have eight in the pipeline to get to 40.

One of the lessons we’ve learned over the years is how to start new schools, and so there’s a very thoughtful two-year process whereby communities who think they’re interested in starting a Cristo Rey school go through a two-year feasibility study to really look at the community: Is there a need in the community? If there is a need, can we provide the jobs? Can we provide the support? To really get community buy-in is a really important piece of starting a new school.

 

How important is fostering Catholic identity to the Cristo Rey Network?

Our schools are explicitly Catholic, for starters. Not all of our students are Catholic, so we do this work because we are Catholic, not because the students we’re serving are all Catholic. Most of our schools also are supported by a religious sponsor. So we have schools that are Jesuit, Christian Brothers, Sisters of Charity — we actually have more religious sponsors than we have schools! Some of our schools may have one, two or three religious sponsors. Some are diocesan schools [where the bishop is the sponsor]. Catholic identity is critical. Of the 10 Cristo Rey mission-effectiveness standards, the first standard is that the school is explicitly Catholic.

 

Where would you like to see the Cristo Rey Network grow and develop under your leadership?

As we grow to 40 schools, we want to ensure that they’re 40 very good, high-performing schools. I’d like to see us develop in the area of meeting all of the audacious goals that we’ve set in terms of college completion, job retention and student retention in grades nine-12, and then really supporting the students [going] to and through college. We have a number of specific initiatives in place all as part of our strategic plan to be able to perform at the rates we want to on some of those audacious goals.

 

What are some of the ways Cristo Rey is increasing college-completion rates?

One of the efforts underway right now is understanding that an alumni adviser at each Cristo Rey school would be very helpful. So, just three years ago, I think, we had a couple of alumni advisers; and now more than half of the Cristo Rey schools have alumni advisers to support students on their journey through college. That’s just one example. Certainly the most important thing we do is ensure their academic preparation to be successful freshman year [of college], because we know that if students don’t need to take remedial classes freshman year, they have a much higher probability of getting through college.

And the number of graduates we produce every year and the number of students going through college is increasing to the point where we have 13,400 graduates right now.

 

How do you see Cristo Rey Network’s growth in the near future? You’ve added on quite a few schools so far.

We have! Right now, we’re operating 32 schools. Our strategic plan sets a goal of 40 schools by 2020, and we actually have eight in the pipeline to get to 40.

One of the lessons we’ve learned over the years is how to start new schools, and so there’s a very thoughtful two-year process whereby communities who think they’re interested in starting a Cristo Rey school go through a two-year feasibility study to really look at the community: Is there a need in the community? If there is a need, can we provide the jobs? Can we provide the support? To really get community buy-in is a really important piece of starting a new school.

 

How important is fostering Catholic identity to the Cristo Rey Network?

Our schools are explicitly Catholic, for starters. Not all of our students are Catholic, so we do this work because we are Catholic, not because the students we’re serving are all Catholic. Most of our schools also are supported by a religious sponsor. So we have schools that are Jesuit, Christian Brothers, Sisters of Charity — we actually have more religious sponsors than we have schools! Some of our schools may have one, two or three religious sponsors. Some are diocesan schools [where the bishop is the sponsor]. Catholic identity is critical. Of the 10 Cristo Rey mission-effectiveness standards, the first standard is that the school is explicitly Catholic. 

 

Now Cristo Rey has also brought in new university partners, both Catholic and public institutions, to help college-bound students — can you tell us more about that?

Increasingly, the partnerships are that these universities will commit to meeting the demonstrated financial need of students; because one of the challenges in the work, of course, is if we can recruit, retain and educate students so that they are college-ready, and if they’re accepted to a school that is a good match for them, but if their family can’t afford the tuition, then we haven’t really helped them all that much. We can’t raise the money for a college scholarship for them. So partnering with schools who will commit to not only meeting their demonstrated financial need, but also providing a structure and a set of supports that will help the students succeed — whether it’s tutorial work, or a buddy system, you know, if you’re a minority on a largely all-white campus, or if you’re one of the few kids from poverty on a wealthy, typically privileged population at a Catholic college. What are the sets of supports that a student will need to be successful there? So there’s a big range of supports and services that these university partners offer our students so they can be successful.

 

Is there an experience with students who came from the Cristo Rey Network that continues to motivate you as the network’s president?

Oh, there are so many, but one that sticks with me probably is from our very first graduating class at San Miguel when I served [there] as president. It’s a big deal when a school is planned for two years and then goes out into the community and recruits these students — whom no one has ever invited to come to a college-preparatory school — invites them in, retains them, and then graduates them, hopefully ready for college. So that first graduating class is a very big deal.

The first graduating class of San Miguel was in 2008. And with those 30-some students who graduated, the story is we had just completed construction on the third phase of the San Miguel campus. Part of that construction was a brand-new, beautiful gym — really, a multipurpose room, where students could have lunch and gym, etc. We had to get a temporary occupancy permit so that we could actually hold our first graduation in that gym. With these 32 students, we were all set up with the banners and the microphones, and all that we needed to have an appropriate first graduation. What we didn’t anticipate was that we literally filled that gym to capacity. We estimated that every single graduate had more than 30 guests in attendance.

So, you know, it was really a remarkable experience, to know that we had filled that gym with those 30-some students. It just reinforced how very, very critical this mission and this work is in the community and in the families, far beyond the very students we’re serving.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.

The interview has been edited for length.

It is a longer version of the Aug. 6, 2017, print version.