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All eyes on prize at Cristo Rey

"They work like dogs" is the surprisingly frank verdict of Fr. Joseph Parkes on the exceptional teaching team at Cristo Rey school in New Yorks's East Harlem.

But then you suspect that's as high a compliment as you can get from the wiry Jesuit, a former principal at Fordham Prep and something of an Irish terrier himself, who always has his eye on the prize.
As president of the 330-pupil school-with-a-difference, that prize is getting his young charges to college.
And to do so requires not only a relentless focus on educational excellence, but also a formidable fundraising effort. The morning I visited the 106th Street school - right beside St. Cecilia's Chapel with the window dedicated to St. Patrick, school director of development Heather Trotta, and Irish American patron Bill Harvey, were beaming at the previous evening's Tribeca bash which had raised $150,000 towards the $4 million annual school tab.
And what does $4 million buy these days? Arguably, the nation's most effective antidote to educational underachievement in marginalized communities.
For with its unique world-of-work approach, Cristo Rey's national network of 24 Catholic co-ed schools - originating in Chicago in 2001 - really is, at its audacious mission states, "transforming urban America, one student at a time."
From hard-pressed families across the five boroughs, the pupils of Cristo Rey, in their $14.5 million refurbished former home for immigrant mothers, are a multinational revelation.
Polished and alert, boys in shirt and tie, girls in neat blouses, they greet visitors with a confidence which shows the positive effect of Cristo Rey's "main ingredient": a day a week for four years spent with an employer.
And not with just any employer. The students of Cristo Rey work in New York's blue chip companies - Ernst & Young, BearingPoint, White and Case LLP to name a few.
Coached and challenged by their teachers, students attend assembly at 8 a.m. on a work-day morning to re-commit to the regimen of hard work and ambition which will see them prosper. At 8:15 a.m. they are chaperoned on the subway to midtown, punching in for an eight-hour day and reporting to meeting points for the journey home at 5:30 p.m.
And if it's a hard day's work, it should be because the employers are handing over a fair day's pay to Cristo Rey for its pioneering Corporate Work Study Program. $29,000 entitles a company to five students - one per day - for the school year.
Yes, there is an altruistic side to this partnership, but school and employer understand that to truly succeed this must be a commercial transaction with every student primed to carry out entry-level clerical tasks.
Character forming? Fr. Parkes, an Irish Echo Black and the Green honoree in 2009, certainly thinks so.
"The work element to Cristo Rey is the important ingredient," he says.
"These young people have their eyes opened to vast opportunities. They see there is no reason why it's not them sitting at that desk or in that corner office downtown. They learn how to present themselves and develop self-confidence. Crucially, they realize it's vital to finish school at a time when drop out rates are among the biggest issues facing urban schools."
Keeping the student at school and at work is a full-time job for Cristo Rey's five-strong development team, which includes a head of "sales" for its teenage workforce. At the end of each day, they pick up worksheets from the students, acting immediately to solve any problems that arise.
"One executive of a Fortune 500 company said to me, you're like an employment agency but it's the only one we deal with that, when there's an issue, you call the worker's mum," jokes Fr. Parkes.
And yet, the work concept is no magic wand. When students arrive at Cristo Rey after completing a three-week summer business boot camp they are often lagging behind on their math and English scores. Even as they brave the entry into corporate America, they must also take on additional catch-up classes in those key subjects. That's more work for the dedicated teachers who are clearly motivated by more than a paycheck.
"They're here every Saturday and on many Sundays too," says Fr. Parkes. "They are committed to the mission, we don't go looking for great teachers, they find us." And the students are no slouches either. They put in longer hours than their city school peers and take fewer holidays.
Their reward for the enthusiastic Cristo Rey team: the special notice board which carries acceptance letters from colleges, including Ivy League schools, to its graduating students.
"Our ultimate goal is that our students will graduate from college and become professionals for others, transforming the world for the good of their families and society," says Fr. Parkes.
As a notice on the school wall declares in capital letters: "EVERYTHING WE DO PREPARES OUR STUDENTS FOR SUCCESS IN COLLEGE."
Returning each day to their immigrant families, the students are as beat and as proud as anyone who ever pursued the American dream; Indeed as dog-tired as a young Joseph Parkes of Jersey City - son of Irish immigrants Joe Parkes Sr. of Manorhamilton, County Leitrim and Mary McAloon of Derrylin, County Fermanagh - who now finds himself transforming urban America, 330 students at a time.
You can hear an Irish Echo interview with Fr. Parkes at www.apublishersblog.blogspot.com. There's more information about Cristo Rey New York at www.cristoreyny.org.

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