Plenty of promising experiments aim to lift performance in urban schools. But few get past the test-tube phase. So here is the Cristo Rey Network, a string of 11 Catholic high schools, which has won more than $20 million in funding—half of that from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—to get bigger.
Chicago's Cristo Rey Jesuit High School was started in 1996 by John Foley, a Jesuit priest who had taught in Peru for 35 years. Its students came mostly from poor Hispanic families. How would they pay the bills? someone wondered. And the question became the big idea: Every student would have a job. They'd spend five school days a month in an office—filing, typing, whatever. In return, employers would pay $6,250 per student to the school, covering three-quarters of tuition.
"We have to introduce elevators to the kids, and revolving doors," Foley says. "At orientation, we tell them it's like going to a foreign country—different customs, different words, different ways of dressing." But the idea has caught on. Last year, 360 Chicago kids applied for 160 spots. Some 95% of graduates went on to college. And Foley has created 10 more high schools based on the Chicago model, with three more set to open in September.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.