Fair or not, the words “Ensley” and “success” don’t often appear together in local media reports. But tucked among vacant buildings and weedy lots a few feet from an Interstate, there’s a high school that takes disadvantaged kids from all over Greater Birmingham, and it has a college acceptance rate most schools would envy. For the latest chapter of “The Junction: Stories from Ensley, Alabama,” education reporter Dan Carsen talks with the people making it happen to find out how this school works.
“Holy Family is a place that will turn your life around.”
That lofty claim comes from Kayln O’Neal, a rising senior at Ensley’s Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School. But she says her school experience before Holy Family was anything but lofty.
“Our teachers were telling us, ‘You’re just going to be a statistic. You’re going to be pregnant before you leave high school. You, your brothers aren’t going to make it out — they’re going to be drug dealers.’ So I would come home crying every day because … I want to be great.”
She felt they didn’t care, and she got in trouble, often. But now, at Holy Family, “It’s like they actually care about you,” she says. “They want you to be great. They’re going to push you. You can’t fail. If you have a D, you can’t leave the school. You’re going to be in tutoring. So, they … they care. And I never had that anywhere else.”
Educators here give students their cell numbers, and vice-versa. When Kayln was struggling to scrape together gas money to get to Holy Family, the school found it for her. She doesn’t get in trouble any more. And she’s thinking ahead. She wants to be a neonatal neurosurgeon.
“Let’s just say something’s going on, they have swelling on the brain. I would go in and fix it.”
On the subject of fixing, “I used to get in trouble” is a common refrain at Holy Family. Rising senior Cameron Taylor knows all about it. He’s sheepish when asked about the kind of trouble he used to get into.
“Oooh, let’s see,” he stammers, a little embarrassed even in hindsight. “Worried about girls too much. Having a bad mouth. Trying to fit in with the wrong crowd. And trying to be somebody that I’m not.”
And it was getting serious.
“I got suspended at least five times,” he says. “I was … I was out of control.”
But now? “Not any more. I am absolutely cool now. Everything is OK.”
School staff agree with Cameron’s self-assessment. One thing that showed him why he should get it together was the Cristo Rey work-study program. Students work one or two days a week at companies and nonprofits all around Birmingham, with their pay going back to the school.
Kirk Mitchell coordinates the more than two-hundred placements. He describes a moment when he knew Cameron had turned a corner:
“He was speaking to a group of eighth-graders considering coming to Holy Family, and he was really open and up-front with these kids. He told them, ‘I’m going to be honest with you-all: I got suspended five times in the eighth grade, and I was proud of it. But my parents saw that this was a better school for me.’ I’m really proud of Cameron, and I think he’s on his way to great things … And we’ve got tons of Camerons in this school.”
Cameron’s favorite subject is calculus. He plays basketball, writes poetry, and dances. He wants to go to Samford University and major in accounting, either to go into that field or to teach math.
“I see what these teachers can do,” says Cameron. “I’m seeing that the counselor, or the principal, and everybody just really care. They really care about your future, and I started to care about my future more ever since I got here. So that’s why I really do love this school so much.”
For kids with strikes against them, that motivation can be half the battle. Connections help too. Cameron hopes to intern at WBRC-Fox 6 over the summer and work at an accounting firm next year. He says being in a work-study program “shows you that, even though I’m young, I can still be mature enough to work.”
Holy Family Cristo Rey president Father Jon Chalmers describes a formula for turning kids like Cameron around. “We integrate a corporate work-study program with high-quality academic programs, combine it with a little counseling and a little magic sauce along the way, and we wind up with a program that we think does transformative work.”
Because the program is designed to work in disadvantaged districts, he says, “we have a creative funding model. We are funded partly by the students’ participation in the corporate work-study program, which accounts for about 45 percent of our revenue. Another 45 percent is in philanthropic support. And the remaining 10 percent is related to tuition. And that’s done on a sliding scale based upon family size and family income.”
Students generally pay anywhere from $200 to $1,200 a year. Work-study director Kirk Mitchell says there’s a huge payoff. “A hundred percent of our graduates have been accepted into college. And the vast majority of those graduates receive scholarship offers as a part of our college counseling process.”
So, there’s this nondescript school building down the street from a gas station in Ensley. It’s a Catholic school, but it takes all persuasions, and it accepts kids who come in with real issues. And it gets them accepted by colleges.
“We’re situated in a community that has been hit hard with poverty, and, quite frankly, crime,” says Mitchell. “What we have going on at Holy Family Cristo Rey is really a solution. And we’re providing a way for students to live a better life.”
Listen to Holy Family Cristo Rey student Cameron Taylor read an essay about his high school experiences and future goals here:
This story is part of “The Junction: Stories from Ensley Alabama.” For more about the series, visit junctionstories.com. The Junction is produced by Mary Quintas and brought to you by WBHM and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated. Financial support comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.