Providence Cristo Rey High School had lofty goals when it opened in 2007 at the former site of IPS School 50 (and later All Saints Catholic School) on the West side.

It wanted to build a school for 300 low income kids who would complete challenging academic work, hold jobs in professional offices at the same time and go on to graduate from college.

Seven years later, the school is still growing toward full capacity but happy with its success rate: Since its first graduating class in 2011, all 75 of its seniors have graduated (or are on track to do so) and were accepted to college. Of those that went to college, 90 percent remain enrolled today.

While Cristo Rey is a work in progress, it has enough experience now to have learned some key lessons about how to help students with challenges to achieve academic and professional dreams some of them come in believing are only for wealthy suburban kids.

It’s corporate partners, philanthropic supporters and a influx of public support through Indiana’s voucher program have also been central to the school’s effort to expand its support for students.

“You have to look at student success and ask ‘where do your student need additional support?’” said Joe Heidt, the school’s president. “How can you adjust your program to provide for it?”

The school’s track record, and it’s unique work-study program, caught the attention of Indiana’s first lady, Karen Pence. A teacher herself, Pence said she regularly schedules school visits and particularly likes to learn about those that are uniquely designed or offer unusual benefits for students.

On a visit last Wednesday, Pence met with administrators and visited a physics class where she quizzed students about their academic interest and their work experience at major Indianapolis companies like the Eli Lilly and Company, PNC Bank and the Ice Miller law firm.

“It’s a school that creatively uses lots of ways to encourage these students,” she said.

A growing network and school

The Cristo Rey network began as a new Catholic school concept in Chicago and has now spread to 28 schools in 27 cities. Tuition is not cheap at $12,000 a year but none of the students pay anywhere close to full price because, by design, they work after school at partner companies that compensate them by paying toward the cost of their tuition.

The school is aimed at high poverty students. Middle class families generally are not poor enough to qualify. But even the poorest families pay something toward tuition. On average, families pay about $200 a year in tuition.

Cristo Rey started in Indianapolis with just 70 students its first year but has grown steadily to 193 this year. It’s aiming for 220 next year and hopes to hit its goal of 300 in three years.

The school is one of seven Catholic schools in the city affiliated with the church’s archdiocese but it is unique in that so few of its students are Catholic: just 15 percent.

Also setting it apart from any other high school in the Indianapolis: 63 corporate partners, including many of city’s most high profile brands, that employ its students.

Providence Cristo Rey High School President Joe Heidt stands before a display with the names of the school's 63 corporate work-study partners. (Scott Elliott)
Providence Cristo Rey High School President Joe Heidt stands before a display with the names of the school’s 63 corporate work-study partners. (Scott Elliott)

The students have jobs all four years of high school. Sometimes, the first match is a perfect fit and the student stays all four years with one company. But many work at different employers over their high school years. Often student progress from simple jobs like receptionist or filing clerk to assisting in actual professional tasks. One student even was published as a co-author on an journal article written by Lilly scientists.

Prepping students for such professional work environments starts during the admissions process: the school only accepts students that school leaders believe can handle the high expectations for conduct.

“When you are sending 14 years olds off to Lilly or Ice Miller, you have to make sure they have some pre qualifications,” Heidt said.

But the student body looks much like the rest of the city’s public schools: 82 percent come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced price lunch, exactly the same percentage of poor children in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Building support systems

Preparing students for the future can’t just take place in the classroom and the workplace, Heidt said. The school has learned many of their students need even greater supports.

In the last few years, Cristo Rey has added more out-of-the-classroom services. Among them:

  • College counseling. The small school size doesn’t justify a budget for more than one counselor, Heidt said. But Cristo Rey added a second position to focus on college counseling to meet a major need of its students.
  • Social work and behavior support specialists. The school has added more supports for students’ personal needs, Heidt said. The school now has what it calls a Proactive Risk Prevention Team, made up of key players from the school’s president and principal to counselors, social workers and others. The team identifies student needs and works to add additional supports, such as tutoring or other services.
  • Tutoring. With a longer school day, Cristo Rey offers a host of extras to help students with skill development. After school, students can attend reading and math labs, enrichment classes or get individual tutoring.

Those extras are costly, but the school supports them with a mix of tuition dollars and philanthropic giving. Among the biggest boosts to its financial bottom line was the state’s new private school voucher program.

Begun in 2011, the controversial program redirect state aid from the school districts that low income students would have attended to instead pay toward their tuition to attend private schools. Critics say vouchers drain needed dollars away from public schools for the benefit of a small number of students.

But for Cristo Rey, more students bringing state voucher dollars when they enroll means more philanthropic dollars they raise can be used for the extra supports school leaders say are vital. About 82 percent of its students now receive vouchers.

“A big key for us,” Heidt said, “is to provide support so we don’t allow any of our kids to fall through the cracks.”

Three keys to getting ready for college

As the school has evolved, Heidt said, administrators have gained a greater understanding of what sorts of supports their students need to succeed, and they are significant.

Cristo Rey High School students listen during a visit by First Lady Karen Pence. All of the school's graduates since 2011 have been accepted to college and 90 percent who went are still enrolled. (Scott Elliott)
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Cristo Rey High School students listen during a visit by First Lady Karen Pence. All of the school’s graduates since 2011 have been accepted to college and 90 percent of those who went are still enrolled. (Scott Elliott)

For example, a study by Central Indiana Education Alliance, formerly known as the Talent Alliance, found just 6 percent of 2007 Marion County high school graduates who earned Core 40 diplomas earned a college degree in four and a half years.

So how has Cristo Rey managed to keep nine of 10 graduates on track to graduate while in college?

Heidt said there are three principles that undergird the school’s approach to rewriting the script for its graduates after they leave:

1. Higher academic expectations in high school.

The same Alliance study showed that Marion County graduates who earned honors diplomas were far more likely to graduate from college; nearly half of them (44 percent) did.

That’s why Cristo Rey starts all of its students working toward the honors diploma from the beginning.

While the Core 40 is a more challenging than a general diploma — requiring tougher courses like Algebra II, chemistry, physics and economics — the honors diploma goes further.

For the honors diploma, students take all the classes required by the Core 40 but must also earn at least a C in every class and maintain a B average overall. In addition, students must take more math, foreign language and fine arts classes. Also, they either must earn college credits while in high school or reach a required score at college level on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT.

Not all of Cristo Rey’s students make it to the honors diploma in the end, Heidt said. But reaching higher pushes students to improve skills — math, writing and foreign language, for instance  — that they will have to demonstrate proficiency in when they take college courses, he said.

2. Financial planning for college.

Many kids miss out on college simply because they aren’t savvy about the process of applying, and finding aid to help pay for it. They sometimes don’t even apply because the price tags look daunting.

Cristo Rey helps connect its students with scholarships and financial aid. About 80 percent of the school’s students are 21st Century Scholars, a state scholarship that pays tuition at Indiana public colleges for students in need who pledge to remain drug free when they are in middle school.

The school averages about $78,000 per student in scholarship awards and each student is required to apply to at least three colleges.

3. Acclimation to college and careers.

Low income students sometimes drop out of college because they feel out of place at a university, Heidt said. Many are from families without any college graduates and have spent little or no time on a college campus.

The work-study program also help acclimate students to professional-level expectations for personal conduct, and teaches them how to navigate in a world that may be different from the one they’ve lived in.

Cristo Rey, through partnerships with IUPUI and Marian University, also allows students to earn up to 56 college credit hours while in high school.

“Having those types of experiences,” Heidt said, “actually taking classes at a college before going to college, helps.”