Cristo Rey’s “Secret Sauce”
Jim Foley talks about what it takes to run a successful prep school in the heart of downtown Columbus
Laura: So you’re in your sixth school year, is that right?
Jim: Right. We’ve had two graduating classes, so that was our fifth complete year, and we’re in year number six.
Laura: I know you’ve had a lot of success in this short period of time; can you tell us about some of the accomplishments that you’re most proud of?
Jim: Well, getting the school open was quite an accomplishment. There was a lot of work that goes with that. So we were happy to get the school opened, approved by the state, and approved by the Cristo Rey network.
Then the next big challenge for us was opening up this building that we’re in now. It was in terrible shape when we bought it. The bones were great, but the building itself had all sorts of issues.
So there was a huge amount of work that needed to be done in this building, and it needed to be done really quickly, because we had to get into this building by our second year. We didn’t have enough space in the building we were in for year one. So, that was quite an accomplishment.
And kudos to all the folks at Schooley Caldwell and to the folks at Korna Kokosing (our general contractor) that really made it happen and turned this into a beautiful structure.
Once we were into the building and into the normal routine of the school, we were looking forward to our first graduation. That was something that was really special for us. We graduated our first class; all the kids were accepted into college. That was a big accomplishment. And then we graduated the second class, and all of those seniors were accepted into college as well. So that's sort of our benchmark: to get the kids into a college or university.
And then along the way, we received an award from the governor of Ohio, governor Kasich. We were one of seven schools in the state of Ohio that got an award for “innovation in education.” And we're pretty excited about that!
Laura: I've heard Cristo Rey’s work study program described as the “secret sauce.” Can you give an overview of that program and the effects that you see it having on students?
Jim: Sure. The program itself originated in Chicago—at the first Cristo Rey School, 25 years ago—to pay for the school, and it paid for about half the cost of school. They very quickly realized (although it wasn't the intention) that having the kids work in a professional environment made a huge difference in their lives. We are a school that's focused on students who are from low income, working class families who don't have a good educational option. And when you take those kids, who, in most cases are the first one in their family who’s going to go to college, and you put them in an environment where they’re rubbing shoulders with professionals, it just has a magical effect. The kids see different professions they didn't even know existed. They see what it takes to be successful, they’re rubbing shoulders with professionals, with college grads… and it just changes their perspective on life. As a result of that, it opens them up to careers, and it allows them to know that the path to that career is a challenging one that involves a lot of hard work and a lot of education. And so it really is our secret sauce.
Laura: Without getting too personal, can you tell me about the backgrounds of some of your students and the challenges that they face?
Well, as I said, our focus—and the focus of all the Cristo Rey schools around the country—is on students from economically challenged families, and families that really don't have the educational options that affluent kids have. The reality is that, if you think about it, God didn't pass out brains based on zip code, but educational opportunity is pretty much in this country based on zip code—where you live. And we want to open that up for kids, to give that opportunity to all the students. So, we have kids who are coming from families that are not wealthy. We have kids that are coming in academically in all four quartiles. We have kids that are in the upper quartile academically on testing, in the lower quartile, and a lot that are in the middle. We have a variety of family situations; some that are challenging. A lot of the kids come from single family homes. Some come from great situations at home, and others have challenges—have some baggage that they bring with them. We find that the kids just have some hurdles that they need to get over. They need to have grit to be successful. And that's the thing about them that really inspires me: the fact that they have that grit. And, you know, it's not how many times you fall down, it’s how many times you get back up.
Laura: Your first graduating class has been out of high school a little over a year now, right? What are you hearing from some of those students?
A variety of things. One of the things that we're hearing is that money is an issue, that they didn't get quite enough financial aid and they're struggling to figure out how to continue in college with financial aid that’s just on the margin. We generally hear from the students that they feel that they're prepared for college academically. And that's something that we're excited to hear. We sometimes hear of situations where, because of a problem arising in their family, they need to come back home. It's a really tough situation if you think about it. If you're a kid who's offered college, the first of your family to go to college and from a single parent family, and mom calls you and says, “Hey, I just lost my job. You need to come back home and work at the McDonald’s around the corner to make money to let us pay the rent.” What do you do? Do you drop out of college and give up your dream? Or do you say to mom, “Too bad, figure it out on your own.” There's no good answer. And so those are some of the challenges that our students face.
Laura: Things that, for most of us, wouldn’t even cross our mind…
No. And if you're fortunate enough to have been born into a family that has the money and the resources and the affluence, who might not have to worry about those things, it just makes life a little bit easier for you. Our kids were definitely not born on third base, and some of them were born with a strike or two against them. That creates some really challenging situations.
Laura: So your home is a building that was built in 1899 as a school. What has it been like to work in this building, and what do the students think?
The building's great. It's been fun working here. The students love it, the staff loves it, everyone loves it. We have the best of all worlds. We have a building that is historical. It's on the national register of historic places, and it still has—when you walk through the halls—the historic charm.
But on the other hand, we've also renovated it to be a very modern, cutting edge, technologically solid environment for education. So, for example, every square foot of this building is wireless. And that enables us to give students iPads for all their books instead of physical books. So the students who are walking through at all times, they have their iPads with them in, and no matter where they are in the building they can access the Internet. And they can do some amazing things with that technology. So we've combined the old and the new together in a way that really works. I mean, I love the charm of the building, but I also love being in a modern, technologically cutting edge environment.
Laura: The main library is right next door. Do the kids use it a lot?
The main library is a huge asset for us. When we were planning the renovation of the building, we had conversations with Pat Losinski, the president of the library, because the way this came about is: the library owns the building and sold it to us. And Pat said to me in one of our conversations, “Jim, do not put a library in your school. Just use us!” And I thought: the Columbus City Libraries has been picked, from time to time, as the best city library in the United States. I'm going to have it next door. It's basically going to be my library. Don’t tell that to Pat—he thinks it’s his but it’s really the Cristo Rey library…
And the kids over there all the time. If you go over to the library after school, you're going to see just dozens and dozens and dozens of Cristo Rey students all over the building. They use it as a place to study. They use it as a place to socialize. They go to the homework help center; they have ACT and SAT preparation courses available there. So it's an enormous educational asset to us. It's impossible to overestimate how huge it is to our existence and our strategy.
Laura: If there was one thing that you could make your students understand before they go to college, something they’d hold onto for the rest of their lives, what would it be?
I’d go back to the word that I used a few minutes ago. “Grit.” I think that that is one of the best predictors of success in life: do you have grit? Do you have that ability to recognize that life is never about success after success after success? There are always going to be challenges; there are going to be failures. You're going to miss the mark occasionally, and that's okay. You learn from those experiences, and you build on that. As the expression goes: it's not how many times you fall down, it’s how many times you get back up. I think that that is one of the best predictors of success in life, and I want all our students to have that. The second piece of advice I would give our kids is: you are here in this school because a lot of people sacrificed for you, and we’re dedicated to your success. And when you become an adult, you have an obligation to pay it forward. You have an obligation to figure out how you can help make the world a better place, and how you can help those that maybe could use a helping hand. If you become wildly successful—if you become a multimillionaire—but you don't do anything to make the world a better place, then you haven't really succeeded in life. So I want them to carry that message with them for the rest of their lives.
Laura: What are some of the things going on in the classrooms that—to those of us who've been out of high school for quite a while—would seem just really, really different from the way we did it?
One of the things that I think we've learned with education is that no matter how smart the teacher is, having a teacher standing up in front of a classroom and just talking doesn't work. We need to engage with the students. So there's a lot less of that lecture format and a lot more of breaking down into groups. And having students work as groups to come up with answers to the problems that they have to face and confront. And that does a couple of things. First of all, it gets the students engaged, which is really important. And not just sitting there falling asleep in the classroom as someone drones on at the lecture stand. But the other thing it does, is it gets them working as a group. In the real world, what they're going to find is that most people are successful not by being a lone wolf, but by working collaboratively with other people—working as a group. And that's a skill that you need to develop. And so by developing that in the classroom, it prepares them for the adult world. So, we see a lot of that in our classrooms when you walk around. Using the computer is certainly something that didn't exist back when, and we use it pretty heavily now.
Laura: That's an important distinction: being prepared versus just getting accepted.
Absolutely. Because if somebody goes to college and they have to take remedial courses because they’re not ready, they’re going to get frustrated, they’re going to run up debt, and it's going to decrease significantly their chances of graduating and being successful. If they come prepared on day one, the results are always going to be better.