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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 August 2006, 02:00 GMT 03:00 UK
The Jesuits' school experiment
Robert Pigott
By Robert Pigott
BBC News, Chicago

The power of faith - coupled with a down to earth approach to the business world - has been harnessed by Jesuit priests in the US to send thousands of the poorest black and Hispanic children from deprived inner city areas to university.

The Jesuits have set up a network of schools which take students from neighbourhoods beset by gangs, drugs and crime, and give them an intensive high school education costing $10,000 (5,300) a year.

Lisette Clara
Most of the time there is a lot of violence
Lisette Clara
Lisette Clara says few people escape from her neighbourhood in inner city Chicago.

She says the casual violence and drug dealing of criminal gangs have sent the neighbourhood into a downward spiral since her family arrived from Mexico six years ago.

As we walk down her street she points out the spot where a teenager was killed recently in a gang shooting, and a street corner two blocks away where another man died.

"Most of the time there is a lot of violence," she says. "It's not only once or twice you hear gunshots, you get used to it. It's pretty scary... you have to stay inside."

Lisette is a diminutive 4ft something, with the brisk manner and confident walk of someone who punches above her weight, and of a child who was never able to afford the luxury of childhood.

At 15 she has friends from her former state school in jail, and others on drugs.

She is typical of the 500 students at the Jesuit high school Cristo Rey, which selects not so much for academic ability as for sheer motivation.

School attendance

Cristo Rey - or Christ the King - was founded by Jesuit priests despatched to the districts of Pilsen and Little Village to do what they could to reverse a cycle of despair and inertia.

Father Jim Gartland
Walking the one mile to work, Father Gartland crosses the territories of seven gangs, and still feels their violent impact

Pilsen is barely 10 minutes from the shiny glass and steel skyscrapers on the Lake Michigan shore, dominating the view eastwards, but they might as well be in a foreign country.

Few local children ever go there.

The buildings represent the well paid jobs and fulfilling careers that they do not expect to have.

When Father Jim Gartland - a handsome man in his late 40s - arrived in Pilsen from missionary work in Peru, he found that fewer than one in three of the local children were actually in school.

Pilsen - named after the Czechs who first settled here - is now entirely populated by Mexicans, many of them illegal immigrants.

Walking the one mile to work, Father Gartland crosses the territories of seven gangs, and still feels their violent impact.

"I have held Masses and buried too many kids under the age of 18," he says.

"The worst thing I've had to do as a priest is to go with the mother of a 14 or 16-year-old kid to the morgue to identify him, and then bury the kid, and ask the question, why?"

Beyond expectations

Cristo Rey was the Jesuit's answer to that question.

Its new brick and glass buildings are planted firmly in this unpromising territory, amid dilapidated houses dotted with signs in the windows saying "we call police", and sporadically marked with gang graffiti.

The school started out taking anyone who would go, but now tearful parents approach staff every week at mass, pleading for a place for their children.

And that is because the experiment has succeeded beyond the Jesuits' wildest dreams.

Cristo Rey drives a pretty hard bargain.

Everyone leaving the school today has a place at college and a belief that they will 'be something'

At the age of 14, children must commit, single-mindedly, to working for a place at college.

The dress code is strict, punctuality rigorously enforced, and students who lie about being on drugs are kicked out. So are any who promote, or recruit for, gangs.

In return they get an intensive high school education in small classes, freedom from intimidation and a counselling system that does its best to defuse domestic issues such as abuse, violence, drugs and crime.

It costs $10,000 (5,300) a year, in a neighbourhood where the average family of five lives on little more than $30,000 (15,900).

And how it finds the money is perhaps the real secret ingredient of Cristo Rey's success - a formula in which there seems to be no losers.

Paying their way

The school sends its students downtown, to work as temps for five days every month in the gleaming high rise offices of lawyers, banks and insurance companies.

Curt Thompson
The kids are highly motivated and do a great job
Curt Thompson

It means putting the kids from the wrong side of the tracks through what the school describes as a "work-place boot camp".

On this crash course in interpersonal skills they learn to walk without the neighbourhood swagger, avoid wet-fish handshakes, and maintain confident eye-contact.

Lisette helps set up policies at Apex Insurance in a Chicago high-rise.

It has given her a confidence beyond her years, and - she says - a sense of responsibility.

The experience of her manager, Curt Thompson, is typical of Cristo Rey employers.

"The kids are highly motivated and do a great job," he says, "and it's far less expensive than hiring a full time person in the same job."

The stark contrast between the children of Cristo Rey, and the lost souls on local streets, becomes inescapable as the final year students have their leaving photo taken in the gym.

They pose for serious photos and then plead for informal ones, piling over each other in decorous disarray.

Without Cristo Rey it is a fair bet that many of them would be unemployed, caught up in drugs or crime, or even in jail.

Instead, everyone leaving the school today has a place at college and a belief that they will - in Lisette Clara's words - "be something".

Lisette says she is working for the day when she can say to her parents: "Hey mom and dad... I'm going to buy a new house. We're moving out."

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