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Last year I spent three days a week working with the guidance counselor and chaplain of a new high school in south Minneapolis. Cristo Rey Jesuit High School is a part of the nation wide Cristo Rey network of Catholic schools dedicated to maintaining a presence within some of the more economically poor urban neighborhoods in the U.S. The mission of Cristo Rey is to have 100% of its graduates go on to some form of higher education – preferably four year colleges or universities. Most of the high school tuition is paid by local businesses and corporations through a school work program – students work one day a week in exchange for tuition dollars. As the principal once told me, “We make both liberal and conservatives happy – the liberals are excited about the fact that we are working with the economically poor, and conservatives like our work component and standards based curriculum.”
My time with the students of Cristo Rey was life changing. I mentored a former gang member, who enjoyed showing me his scars and tattoos. A senior student and I swapped stories and pictures of our kids – his girlfriend, a junior, had just given birth to a baby girl. I spent time with three sophomore girls in an after school program for students who fail their courses. (They only warmed up to me after an impromptu conversation about puppies…) Most of my time was spent with a freshmen Somali student named Mohammed. When we weren’t trying to catch him up in physics and geography we talked about the NBA and the finer points of Islam, all while eating M & Ms. One could say I had an impact on the lives of these students – Mohammed did pass the 9th grade, and towards the end of the year began to keep the basketball up high in the post – but the truth is they had a much greater impact on me.
My work at Cristo Rey shined a spotlight on this thing called “higher education.” Students worked hard to get good grades, to get scholarships, to just get accepted into these institutions. I remember the first day a group of students received their acceptance letters – the whole school stopped and celebrated. Soon, however, the excitement of acceptance gave way to the reality of paying the bill. While most students received generous scholarships of ten to fifteen thousand dollars a year – they began to realize the scholarships only covered half of the cost. I distinctly remember one girl coming into the guidance office in tears – asking how she was supposed to pay for the rest?
This is not just a Cristo Rey issue – the Occupy Wall Street movement has shown the cost of higher education and mounting student debt is a problem for most people. However, the Cristo Rey students represent a different segment of the 99%. They are from immigrant families, or they are kids on their own who no longer live with their immediate families – most of them are the first in their families to even think about a college education. The time I spent with these students has led me to ask important questions about the place I spend so much of my time and energy – Christian higher education. Questions like:
How can we begin to address the issue of increasing costs and the ramifications of those costs as a debt burden for our students?
How can Christian institutions of higher education have an increased presence within economically poor communities?
How can we poke holes in our institutional walls so that we begin to collaborate rather than compete? Could we work together to establish Christian community colleges and vocational schools in neighborhoods like south Minneapolis? How can we creatively establish partnerships with businesses and corporations, like the Cristo Rey model, to keep the cost of education at these new schools to manageable levels?
How can our institutions begin to operate by faith rather than fear? What would it look like if, instead of worrying about whether our institutions will be around in 50 years, we worked as hard as we can to “spend” ourselves – to go all in, to creatively and imaginatively give ourselves for the sake of the gospel?
I know, I know – I’m not living in reality. I’m a dreamer, an idealist, etc. Been called that and more many times over. But I’m also, at heart, a metal head – a rocker – who thinks there’s something to the motto held by all true rockers everywhere: It’s better to burn out, then fade away.