STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

A Catholic high school in Detroit requires students to hold down a job as part of their homework

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

School is almost over for the year, and one Detroit high schoolhas lots to celebrate. The entire graduating class has been accepted to college. Nearly all of the students live in poverty, and most of them are the first in their family to go to college. So what's the secret to their success? 

The school that works – literally.

Four days a week, Idalis Longoria does what pretty much all high school juniors do: She goes to school, takes notes in class, and hangs out with her friends in the cafeteria during lunchtime.

But on the fifth day of the week, Longoria trades in her Catholic school uniform for a pair of light-blue scrubs and makes her way around the birthing floor for her “rounds” at St. Mary’s Hospital near Detroit.

Believe it or not, her hospital rounds are her homework. See, Longoria, who’s 17 years old, goes to Cristo Rey. It’s a college prep catholic high school in Detroit, one of 25 around the country. The Cristo Rey schools are specifically for low-income kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford private school. The vast majority of students are either Hispanic, like Longoria, or black.

Here’s how it works: One day a week, beginning freshman year, the students go to work for a white-collar company – a law firm, say, or the information technology department at Chrysler. The company, in turn, agrees to pay most of the student’s school tuition. 

Debbie Ainsworth directs the birthing center where Idalis Longoria works. She says having  a bunch of 14-year-olds do clinical work was pretty intense in the beginning. But she’s a total convert now.

"We’re like 60 moms for them, the poor things," jokes Ainsworth. "But it’s 60 role models. Some of us are single moms, some of us aren’t. They’ve seen women who may have had a difficult life or a difficult road to travel who’ve made something really special with their lives and are making good money and can support their families," says Ainsworth, and the students can see "that they can too, you know."

The country club treatment for low-income students

There have been three graduating classes since Cristo Rey opened in Detroit. And for three years in a row, every single senior has been accepted to college.

Still the school can’t make up for years of disadvantage most of these students face. Mike Khoury is president of Detroit’s Christo Rey. He says most of the students at his school come in one or two years behind in reading and math, so getting them up to grade level is a challenge. And their standardized test scores are still below the national average. But he says the jobs program at Cristo Rey helps to start level the playing field between rich kids and poor kids.

"I kind of consider the jobs program our kids’ country club," explains Khoury. "So while their parents might belong to the country club where they can get referrals and recommendations to open the doors for their children, our students have their job partners who are doing that exact same thing for them."

They’re hiring the students for summer jobs, counseling them about which colleges to apply to, even writing up recommendations to go along with their college applications.

Where college is more than an option, it's "absolutely mandatory"

Back at St. Mary’s Hospital birthing center, Idalis Longoria takes a breather between rounds to tell me how much her life changed over the last few years. Before she enrolled at Cristo Rey and started working at the hospital, she never really gave much thought about college.

"But then I got here and I realized how important it is," says Longoria, "and how if I want to be  s successful as, you know, the people that I work with here, then it’s absolutely mandatory and I have to do good, and I have to get into a good college at that."

Her top choice? The University of Michigan. If she gets in, she’ll be the first in her family to go college and, hopefully, graduate.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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