Cristo Rey: a school that works

By Anna Foote

Friday afternoon at Cristo Rey High School in midtown KC: a bell rings and students stream into the hallway past the main office.  Sr. Vickie Perkins, President of Cristo Rey Kansas City, steps into the hall to give a student a message and watches the crowd flow toward their next classes. It’s a normal high school scene, except every single student here is a freshman.

Perkins is watching the class of 2010, her first graduating class. It is near the end of year one, and I ask her how it’s gone. She laughs.

“We always say it’s going well because it’s the first time—we’ve never done it (before). What do we know? And so I’m assuming it’s going well.”

And it is, by appearances. Students greet me with friendly confidence, their pride is evident. Congeniality is key to the school’s atmosphere, and a visitor gets a sense of welcome that is notable.

In fact, the longer you look, the less “normal” this high school scene seems. Like most Catholic high schools, CRKC wants to send their students into polite society, with a Christian ethic, prepared with an elite education that will promote them to leadership of that society. But the pool of candidates this school draws from is unusual.

Cristo Rey is a high school that was born out of a desire to provide hope – through education – solely to economically disadvantaged youth. And the high school’s leaders are not satisfied with a decent education within their walls – these students are being prepared to go to college, they are being sent to work in successful businesses for one full day each week, they are expected to excel in an environment that allows for success.

Is this unusual, expensive proposition likely to create more justice in our city? If so, how does the community aid in the creation of justice?

Well, be patient for the answers. Such lofty goals are attained one human being at a time.

“We all know every kid by name, and we call them by name,” says Sr. Vickie. “We know most of their families. That kind of support for kids is critical—that they know that what happens to them makes a difference to us.”

Of course, Sister could be talking about any high school youngster’s need for adult involvement. But she is talking about the kids she’s chosen to lead at CRKC, and those choices provide unique obstacles.

“We have a lot of kids who came to us well below grade level and so that’s been a challenge, to get them into college-prep curriculum,” Sr. Vickie says. “The hallmark of it is that we really look at what are the supports that an individual child needs. And they need different things.”

Some students might need a caring community member to tutor the student in reading an hour or two a week. Others might need to stay after school consistently with a teacher for extra help. Like student Jovanna Reyes, age 15, who lives in Independence. 

“Math has always, always, always been the hard one for me,” Jovanna says. “The teachers—you can tell they care, because they give you extra help after school.”

Student Adavia Thornton, also 15, who lives in the Parade Park neighborhood near 18th and Vine, agrees.

She says of her new school, “It’s given kids a lot of experiences that we might not have had. They’ve given us a chance of being in a safe environment. It’s just a whole other experience (here). You have teachers you can count on.”

If this is a small step towards justice, then it’s taken by many at one time. Administrators, teachers and volunteers conspire to tell 100 disadvantaged young Kansas Citians that each is important enough to warrant individual attention – in any amount and kind necessary to get them through high school, and through college.

Consider one element that makes CRKC different from any high school—Catholic or not—in the city, its corporate work study program. Students spend one day a week working an entry-level job. Thirty-two companies gave CRKC youth jobs this year. The money students earn goes to the school to help pay for their education. And work experience opens their eyes to the world of employment.

Is this justice? The best one usually expects of business is charity, providing a handout here and there to whatever causes. But is bringing that student into the workplace, sharing and showing a model of success in the everyday, a step away from charity and toward actual change?

It seems to be.

“Now it does help pay the bills, and that’s good,” says Sr. Vickie. “But it does so much more than that. It builds dreams, it broadens horizons, it lets kids think, ‘I could do this,’ and also think, ‘I’d like to do this.’”

And sometimes, she says, it serves up a dose of reality.

“I’m usually here at night when they’re coming back,” she says. “And we say, ‘How was the day?’  and most of the time they say, ‘It was great, it was good.’ Once and a while you get, ‘Oh it was boring.’ And (we say), ‘That’s part of the real world, that’s why they call it work. It’s not always going to be exciting.’

“It’s a long day for them. We start at 7:30 and on work days a lot of times they don’t get back until 5:30. So they’re understanding a little more of what their parents go through every single day. For some of them, it’s the motivation to say, ‘I don’t want to do this kind of job all my life, I want to be able to do my supervisor’s job, so I’ve got to have an education if I’m going to do that.’ That helps with giving them the motivation to do the study.”

And for one CRKC student, work and study coincide.

“The (job) sponsors really take an interest in the kids,” Sr. Vickie says, and describes an event at a certain job site. “One of the students who works there was struggling in math. And one of the supervisors there is good at math, and so she said, ‘Every week when you come, you bring your math book.’ And so she takes about an hour out of the day when she works with her on math. Well, now she’s doing fine in math.”

Still, with the first year coming to a close, Sr. Vickie knows the questions of true change – even in terms of the first year of the first graduating class – isn’t answered.

“Some of our kids are struggling academically,” she says, “and we’ve adapted how we deal with that. Some of the things we thought would really help haven’t done that much, so we’ve changed gears and we’re going to another model this fourth quarter to help give the support that they need. It’s just a constant figuring out how to make it work for them.”

The effort is not lost on students. They’re spreading the word to next year’s potential CRKC freshmen.

“When we took kids out for the recruitment process,” Sister says, “we took them back to grade schools they came from to talk to the kids. Every group that went out said, ‘Well you’ll have to work really hard, but the teachers do really care about you.’”

Next school year, staff and supporters will have to double the love—CRKC expects to add a new freshman class of one hundred.

And Sr. Vickie sums it up: “We say it’s a school that works. And that’s true—it really does. You know, the kids work, but it works for kids, too. And we see that it’s going to continue to work for kids.”

Could you help CRKC? Here are some ways:

* Volunteer as a tutor or mentor.
* Volunteer at various special events—contact the school’s volunteer coordinator for options.
* Make a monetary donation—all amounts are welcome.
* Donate office supplies, including paper that is used on just one side (staff and students reuse).
* Donate a computer (Pentium 4 or better) that is in good condition—the school provides home computers for each student who needs one.
* In Fall 2007, donate business-style clothing, shoes and belts for students—be sure to check the school’s dress code to ensure attire is appropriate.

Before donating and for more information, visit or contact the school at 816-457-6044.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: