Empowering Baltimore students to succeed in college, work, and life
Bill Heiser is the president of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore. Established in 2007, Cristo Rey is a Catholic, Jesuit, co-ed, college preparatory school for students in grades nine through twelve. Over its 10-year history, one hundred percent of graduating students have been accepted into college. Cristo Rey currently enrolls 350 students from lower-income families in Baltimore City. The school is part of the Cristo Rey Network, which spun out of the original Cristo Rey school founded in Chicago in 1996. The Networks 32 high schools are located in urban areas throughout the country. All students participate in the Corporate Internship Program through which they finance a significant portion of the cost of their education.
EDWIN WARFIELD: Cristo Rey is a unique kind of school. How do you deal with the competition over acceptance spots? How do ensure you’re scaling your impact over time?
BILL HEISER: When you’re working with 350 students here in Baltimore, you have to make sure that those 350 students are getting the highest quality experience that they can. It’s not just about what you’re learning in the classroom. Often times, the best experience happens outside of the classroom. We talk about learning experiences at their corporate internship, we talk about that at their extracurricular activities—everything is a learning activity so that they can continue to improve and evolve.
The way that you scale that is that when you are sending students out into the corporate sector for an internship, to ensure that those relationships and bonds and bridges that are being built from a neighborhood in Cherry Hill where the college graduation rate is 5%—how do you have a student from Cherry Hill who walks into Legg Mason and has this incredible experience, but initially is a little overwhelmed at the experience? But when you provide a lot of support, a lot of care and really high expectations, that’s one of 350 students. And you multiply that out, every single year, with 100 graduates, over time what you’re doing is it is a multiplying effect that could be leveraged and that can impact Baltimore. What we’ve seen is the scalable factor is this: when you impact one student you impact an entire family, you impact an entire street and you impact an entire neighborhood. That’s the multiplying effect. We’ve talked about this. You don’t need a school of 1000 or 2000. What you do is you change it for one student because when you do it that way, you’re then changing it for his or her family and the neighborhood. And as they grow up, college is a possibility, learning to code is a possibility, going into advertising and being really creative—those are all opportunities; fixing problems around the city that they see in terms of pollution in the harbor and working on that in school and then realizing that “I could be a part of something bigger and impact my neighborhood.” That is the scalable effect for us.
The other way that it is scalable is this: when other schools or cities around the country see the success that Baltimore is having in terms of Cristo Rey—Richmond, Virginia visited here a year ago and Richmond’s doing a feasibility study, and they’re determining whether they are going to start a Cristo Rey. And they’re saying, “If Baltimore can to it, I think we can do this. Let’s see if it’s possible.” That’s also scalable. When you see another Cristo Rey popping up in Richmond, Virginia and then the next one popping up in a city across the country, those are opportunities to leverage our inner cities.
It’s important to emphasize that when people become involved with Cristo Rey, there’s a web of influence there. It’s beyond just a single network—a one-to-one network; there’s a web of influence that impacts everything the student, the family, the neighborhood does. Whether it’s a scholarship benefactor or a corporate internship, we’re teaching our students to stay in touch and develop relationships over time.
The Whiting Turner Contracting Company is a great example of that. One of our students finished and they had their corporate internship there. They had such a positive experience they kept working there during the summertime on breaks from college—even decided to change their major because of the experience they were having, and the close relationship. And eventually the student was offered a job their. That’s an incredible experience. That’s the power of the web of influence. We can’t underestimate that: the power of mentoring and relationships. We’re always trying to plant seeds, seeds of hope for kids, and when we do that, there’s no doubt that our kids can become great.
Q. In terms of improving the educational landscape for students in Baltimore City, what aspects of Cristo Rey can other schools learn from?
A. I’m a big believer in small schools—number one—and so I think that personalization in schools matters a great deal. When I’ve been in high schools of 2000, or even 1000, or even 750, for me, those schools need to be much smaller. That’s number one. I think also the other piece is this: teacher quality matters. We have 22 full-time teachers here and it’s really, really important that the quality of those teachers is very, very high: quality in terms of their ability to teach, quality in terms of their ability to be caring and nurturing—it takes a special combination—quality in terms of the highest expectations and not taking a break. We often talk about it in terms of sports. You can’t take a player off; you can’t take a day off. Every day matters. Every class matters. Those are things that are really important.
I would also leverage the resources around the Baltimore region and I think Cristo Rey has done a remarkable job of that. There are a lot of learning opportunities and people care a great deal about the students in Baltimore City. When you start to connect them to caring adults and innovative environments, a light bulb goes off for students, and sadly I don’t know that that’s always happening on such a large scale. The other thing that I would do is take a historical look at the three or four top schools in Baltimore, which often created a segregated environment in Baltimore in terms of the top students going to the top three or four schools. That same level of resources should be given to every student, no matter their ability. I would also start to look at their growth: Instead of just overall performance, how do you look at how much a student is growing every single year, year to year?
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