One of the main goals for the hugely successful Corporate Work Study Program, which started at Chicago’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in 1996 before expanding to dozens of schools throughout the country, is to help assimilate students from low-income and at-risk neighborhoods into professional work environments.
Current and former members of the program walk through Chicago's Loop daily as contributing members of the city's thriving workforce, confident in their abilities, fully trained and experienced in the skills it takes to be successful in today’s complicated and competitive marketplace.
The newer students, however, tend to stick out, at least to the alumni.I can always tell where the Cristo Rey students are, said Cristo Rey graduate Cristina Hernandez. I know it, because they're so young and they're all dressed nicely.
I'll be walking down the street and I see young faces in work attire, and I don’t have to second guess,” said another former graduate Diego Gonzalez. “I know they’re from Cristo Rey. There’s no way they’re not.”
Cristina and Diego are both full-time paralegals at Cooney & Conway who graduated from Cristo Rey and participated in the nationally-acclaimed program that prepares students for successful professional careers in a wide range of fields and industries.
“In the beginning, they’re definitely timider, and they’re quiet,” said former Cooney & Conway program director Tiffany Perkins. “But the work ethic they have is great. I’ve never had one complaint about them because they come in, and they do their work. They love to take on more work, and they get really excited if you give them something challenging. They start to build up their confidence.”
Many of the students from the school and the program come from immigrant families in some of the poorer neighborhoods of the city. For a number of them, they will be the first member of their family to graduate high school and go to college.
“We were founded in 1996 with the idea that we give students from underserved communities who came from hard-working families an opportunity to earn quality college prep education and send them to college,” said Cristo Rey program director Jose Rodriguez.
60 Minutes Feature Propels Cristo Rey into National Spotlight
In 2001, a generous donation from a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named B.J. Cassin helped to open a national office and a dozen schools in cities like Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. This expansion and replication of success caught the attention of the television news magazine 60 Minutes, which aired a feature on Cristo Rey and its successful work program in 2004. That national exposure led the program to Bill and Melinda Gates, who had just founded the Gates Foundation. In 2005, Melinda Gates toured the Cristo Rey facilities before gifting the program a significant donation, allowing Phase II of the replication process to open another 12 schools across the country.
“The graduation and achievement rates are remarkably good compared to neighborhood high schools serving the same population,” Tom Vander, executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, told the New York Times in 2003. “We think all families, particularly urban and disadvantaged families, ought to have a variety of quality options available to them in education.”
“Thanks to B. J. Cassin and the Gates Foundation, this idea that was created by the Chicago area business community, and Cooney & Conway, has been a long-time partner in our endeavor,” Rodriguez said. “It’s now become one of the largest private school networks in the country with over 2,500 national corporate partners and over 15,000 students served.”
Among some of the most impressive statistics the program boasts of include:
- 100 percent graduation rate
- 100 percent of seniors accepted to college
- 15,000 students served nationwide
- 2,500 national corporate sponsors
- 200 active companies from Chicago
- 90 percent of students persist through their second year
- 90 percent partner retention
- 95 percent of alumni enroll in college
- 98 percent school attendance
- 99+ percent work attendance
- Students earn up to 70 percent of their tuition through work program
“It’s a really safe space for students,” said Rodriguez. “I’ve been here for 15 years and I can't remember there being one physical altercation. It’s just a very peaceful place. When you pair up high expectations with a safe environment, a nurturing environment, students are going to do very well. They’re going to the prosper at the school.”
Cristo Rey Work Program Helping to Make Families Proud
“My mom always wanted at least one of her children to go to Cristo Rey, she had heard so many great things,” Cristina Hernandez said. “She said that she was going to at least do what she could to make sure that her children succeed in life. She saw me going to college when I was done with high school, and then working, being able to pay some of my tuition, and then helping in the house with paying certain bills. She’s always been my biggest supporter.”
During her freshman year at Cristo Rey, Cristina worked for a greeting card company downtown. She learned to process orders and answer phones. She was content there, until Rodriguez informed her that she was a candidate for one of the new companies partnering with the program. The next year, she was moved to Cooney & Conway, where she remained the rest of her time at Cristo Rey, and where she has been employed ever since.
“I didn’t see myself working in a law firm, it wasn’t something I saw as my career path,” she said. “Even when I started at the university, I never thought I was going to be studying something related to the legal field. Then I got an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, so who knows? I’m still a year away from my bachelor’s degree. I really like working here and I’ve gained so many experiences, so I figure I might as well get my bachelor’s in paralegal studies and put my education to use.”
Attorney Jim Hokinson acted in the supervisory position when Cooney & Conway joined the program in 2009.
“It opens the kids’ eyes to possibilities,” Hopkinson said. “I always think anybody who works at a law firm kind of says, ‘Hey, I could do this.’ Cooney & Conway always gives the opportunity to see the possibilities and then pursue them.”
Rodriguez has seen so many students pass through the program that it is much harder to remember individual students now than it was in the beginning. Some of those students stand out and leave an indelible impression as part of a lasting legacy.
“In Cristina, we got someone who’s dependable, who works incredibly hard, has integrity and the values are there,” Rodriguez said. “Work and education are important to our families. Many first-generation families with an immigrant experience sit at the dinner table with the expectation that their child be the first in the family to go to college, and completely change the trajectory of the lives of everyone else in the family, especially those that are younger. Cristina is a proud example of that.”
Corporate Work Study Program Prepares Students for Working Life
“They would have scenarios like what you would be doing if you worked in an office,” Cristina said. “I remember they had four desks with phones and one person would be calling the other person, and you had to respond as if she was a customer and I was the representative helping her out. It was scary because I’m not really that social type of person.
“We also got training for learning how to organize certain documents, doing all of the filing, how to send out mail with postage, print out documents from Word and Excel.”
By the time the students arrive for their first day on the job, they look the part and are prepared with the proper training for the tasks they will be assigned. Diego Gonzalez is now the Cooney & Conway supervisor for Cristo Rey’s Corporate Work Study Program, but no amount of training could prepare him for an experience like going to work in the big city for the first time.
“I thought I was going to get lost,” Diego said. “I rarely had gone downtown, so I was very nervous. I had a little sheet that told me exactly how to get to where I needed to go.”
It didn’t take long for Diego to feel comfortable in the office situation, and quickly realized how his training might pay off.
“I always asked a lot of questions because I didn’t want to screw anything up, I thought there would be big consequences if I did,” he said. “Everyone was very welcoming and they taught me what I was going to be doing. It all worked out. They asked me if I knew how to make copies and I said, ‘Yes, I do! I do know how to make copies!’”
A Hairy Student Protest
“I was always having issues with my hair,” he said. “I think it was more rebellious. I liked to grow it out, and I always had issues with them on that front. I think it’s because of me that they changed that rule.
“Before, it wasn’t in the rulebook that boys couldn’t have long hair. There was a rule about short hair, but nothing about how long it could be. I used to debate them on that constantly. The dean would call me in and I would talk with them, Jose Rodriguez was there, too. Ultimately, I always cut my hair, but I noticed that sophomore year, there was a new rule in the rulebook that your hair can’t touch your collars or pass your eyebrows. I think they changed that because of me.”
It was a valuable lesson in when and how to deal with conflict for Diego.
“My friend and I were both growing our hair,” he said. “They talked to him first and then come to me. They were ready to butt heads, but I was really calm. I had a homeroom teacher who had said, ‘The moment you start yelling or lose your cool, you’ve already lost.’ I always really admired that piece of advice, so I tried to remain calm.
“At one particular Mass during that time, they had talked about how ‘before you can follow anyone’s rules, you have to learn to respect yourself,’ so I definitely used that against them. They laughed, but ultimately, I signed the handbook saying I would obey the rules, so I knew they had me there.”
Diego and Cristina are shining examples of what Cristo Rey’s Corporate Work Study Program can do to give someone a chance at a career and life that might not have been possible otherwise.
“The greatest thing that I will always be grateful for about Cristo Rey is that they hooked me up with Cooney & Conway,” Cristina said. “I was able to continue having relationships here and that helped me to be ready for the working life, and life in general.”