Holy Family Cristo Rey School

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The dropout rate in Birmingham city schools is nearly three times the state average, leading some parents to consider more costly alternatives to public education. One school in Birmingham is making the option available to families that otherwise couldn’t afford a private education. WBHM intern Collin Kurre has the details.

If you take I-59 west from Birmingham and exit on Bush Boulevard, it may not seem like a place brimming with opportunities. Though Ensley was once a thriving industrial city, the area today seems bleak. But don’t let the sirens fool you, because tucked in this run-down neighborhood is a program which advocates say is changing the fortunes of participating students.

Holy Family Cristo Rey High School is preparing underprivileged teenagers for college and beyond. Sidney Moore taught in the Birmingham and Bessemer school systems for 35 years and now teaches social studies at Holy Family.

“A lot of times, especially in public schools, a teacher may not see a college student. They may see a kid that lives in an inner-city neighborhood where not much is going on academically, and when they see the kid that’s what they see. We have the same kids from the same inner-city neighborhoods but we see a college student, that’s the key, and you have to see it day one. And once you can see it, even if they’re just mouthing the words about college and they don’t really believe it in their heart that they’re college students, by the time we finish encouraging them and telling them, ‘Yeah, you can do it’ then they see it too.”

The emphasis on college prep is not the most unique thing about Holy Family. The school’s slogan is…

“‘The school that works’, literally. Every one of our students has a paid internship position, and the money earned from that pays 70% of the students’ tuition, making the school affordable for those that can’t afford it.

That’s Scott Meinberg, director of sales for the school’s corporate internship program. One day a week students are bussed from the school to their respective internships, which range from contractors to mechanics, from hospital jobs to a rumored new position at the zoo. Aside from cutting tuition costs, the internships give students practical work-force experience. Michael Froning is former dean of UAB’s School of Education and current director of the Birmingham Education Foundation.

“The idea of work-study is not unique to Cristo Rey. I think that the way that they apply the concept, though, is very suited for the student population that they have, and the idea that students would dedicate a day a week to work, formal work, job work where they have to act as regular employees, it brings that aspect of career preparation to high school that is often missing.

Students also get a chance to explore possible career options before they get to college. Jan Fuller is executive director of the Corporate Internship Program.

“Chatney Williams is my student who does not have a road map. She wanted to be a lawyer. I placed her at Haskell and Slaughter. Big law firm. I think it’s number one or number two in the state of Alabama. By the end of that year, Chatney said I don’t want to be a lawyer, it’s too much paperwork, they’re very intense, I don’t want to do that.”

Williams went on to intern with an interior design firm and is now in college preparing to enter the field herself.

“Tell her folks they owe me about ten thousand dollars for changing her major twice.”

The Cristo Rey network is a collection of 24 private, Catholic schools throughout the country specializing in college and career preparation. Holy Family was approved as a Cristo Rey school in 2006, and since then they boast that 100% of their seniors graduate and go on to college. But Michael Froning of the Birmingham Education Foundation, says those numbers can be misleading.

“At Cristo Rey the kids and families go there absolutely for the chance to go to college, so it’s not surprising that the students that survive the four years there would all go to college. What you don’t know in that statistic is how many kids started at the school and, for some reason, didn’t finish there.”

Charlotte Harris enrolled her son Carlon as a ninth grader during Holy Family’s first year as a Cristo Rey school. The fact that Carlon’s class of 2011 is significantly smaller now than it was three years ago doesn’t surprise Mrs. Harris.

“I can honestly say with Holy Family they really weed ‘em out. You know you’re not going to be there failing a year. You’re not going to wait till, oh it’s April, oh you’re kid’s not doing well. They weed them out very early which I think is wonderful.”

Alabama state law prohibits kids with less than a C average to work. Struggling students are ineligible for the internship program and the tuition subsidy it provides, which may be a reason why some drop out. For those who stay and complete the program, Holy Family can be a springboard for future success. Carlon Harris has big plans for after he graduates in the spring.

“I want to major in biology, then after graduating from wherever I’ll go to med school, then after med school, a general surgeon, then possibly chief, you never know.”

So if you find yourself on Bush Boulevard in Ensley, look past the vagrants and shabby buildings and you may find the community’s future surgeons, interior designers, and zookeepers.

~ Collin Kurre, February 16, 2011