Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Author Q&A with G.R. Kearney

Earlier, I discussed G.R. Kearney's book about Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago.  I sent along some questions about the book and Kearney was kind enough to answer them:

1.) How different is Cristo Rey now than when it opened in 1996?  It's obviously bigger, in newer buildings, more selective, and you seem to say that it offers a more traditional curriculum.  But if the founders walked into the school today, would they still recognize it?

Much has changed, no doubt. As you said, the buildings are new. The classrooms are nicer. There’s a beautiful gym. The student body has more than quadrupled.  There’s even an endowment.  The curriculum today is far less progressive and experimental.  All that said, the founders would certainly recognize it.  And I think most would see their fingerprints all over the place. The students are still earning their tuition and the school is still very much student centered.  It’s hard to speak of Cristo Rey’s founders as a monolithic group.  There were multiple founders, and not surprisingly, multiple viewpoints.  There were Jesuits who’d spent decades teaching in very traditional but indisputably high quality high schools. There were progressive educators who insisted that traditional model wouldn’t work in Pilsen, the neighborhood where the original school opened.  There were astute businesspeople who argued that efficiency and frugality needed to be top priorities, not experimentation.  All the founders, though, were united in their desire to provide a better high school to a segment of the population that desperately needed one.  That’s still the focus.  And though the classes are taking place in more spacious rooms with carpeting and gadgets, the fundamental mission of the place hasn’t changed.

2.) Did you read David Whitman's description of Cristo Rey in his book Sweating the Small Stuff?  If so, what did you think of it?  It seems quite different from, if not diametrically opposed to, your description.

I have to admit that I have not read the book… I can’t afford it.  A good friend has it and I’m next in line to go through it.  I’ve read a good deal about it and have discussed it with many folks. I don’t, based on what I do know of Mr. Whitman’s writing, think his portrayal and mine are diametrically opposed.  In what you’ve written about the book, you seem to focus on the following things as the primary differences between the Cristo Presented by Mr. Whitman and the Cristo Rey presented in MTAD:  1.) progressive “student centered” curriculum in place at the school vs. no-nonsense approach to education; 2.) lack of discipline and academic performance from some students in MTAD vs. Mr. Whitman’s presentation of a very disciplined school where punishment is meted out for dress code violations, gum chewing, and not handing in homework.

I’ll try to address both.  But I must begin by saying that much of MTAD is set in the school’s early years.  I don’t know when exactly Mr. Whitman’s study of the school took place, but Cristo Rey had changed a great deal in the intervening years, which I suspect is one of the main reasons that the presentations of the school feel so different. The development of the curriculum and the resulting ideological tug of war was very much a part of Cristo Rey’s early years. Starting in 2002-2003, the school shifted away from much of its experimentation (which had included custom designed classes, extensive cross curricular teaching, block scheduling and more) and had adopted a more traditional curriculum.  I sincerely hope, though, that I did not give readers of MTAD the impression that the curricular innovations taking place at the school resulted in a lowering of disciplinary or academic expectations for students.  While Cristo Rey’s teachers were developing innovative classes, they were also pushing their students through both classwork and homework to think at a high level and to deliver high quality work products.  And there were certainly consequences for students who didn’t perform academically.  From the earliest days, students who fell behind academically, oftentimes simply by failing to hand in assignment or two, were required to attend an after school silent study hall moderated by a Jesuit brother who also served as the school’s maintenance man and could be quite stern when he needed to be. 

Regarding discipline, again, I don’t think the differences are as wide as they may initially seem; those that do exist probably again stem from the timing differences.  For those who didn’t read MTAD, it’s worth pointing out that Cristo Rey struggled mightily to attract students (the founders mistakenly assumed they’d be overrun by students wanting to attend).  The school opened in the fall of 1996.  By the beginning of summer of 1996, only a handful of students had registered.  The founding faculty literally attended street fairs in the neighborhood to try and convince young people to attend.  As a result, CR ended up with a slightly different student mix than the founders had anticipated.  Many of the students they were able to find had, for one reason or another, left their previous schools.  Many of these kids lacked the intrinsic motivation Cristo Rey’s founders assumed their students would have.  Discipline was also more of an issue in the early years when the school was still finding its way.  Cristo Rey’s founding faculty started the first year without a dean of discipline.  They believed, erroneously, that the students would be so smitten with the school that discipline wouldn’t be an issue.  They were wrong.  Within the year (I think) they’d appointed a dean and developed a demerit / detention system.  At points, your post seems to suggest that innovation resulted in a lowering of expectations or standards.  With the exception of the period during which there wasn’t a formal discipline system, I don’t think this could be farther from the truth. Expectations for students were always high and students were held to very high standards, albeit standards that would have been different than those in place at many other college prep schools.

Lastly, I think it’s important to point out that a central tenet of Mr. Whitman’s argument in favor of paternalism is that the new paternalism is also compassionate. Your post seems to highlight the disciplinary / no nonsense approach of paternalism and overlook the softer side.  By its very nature, the new paternalism is compassionate and caring.  I think this was in the early days, and remains today, a focus at Cristo Rey.  I also don’t believe it to be in any way inconsistent with Mr. Whitman’s presentation of a school with high standards and a “no nonsense” approach.

coreynote: I didn't mean to imply that Cristo Rey was overrun with discipline problems, only that Whitman seemed to describe it as a place where discipline problems almost magically ceased to exist while Kearney provides a slightly different picture.

3.) You mention that one of the largest concerns in the early years were the difficulties that Cristo Rey students encountered once they enrolled in college.  Is the school any closer to solving this problem?

This is a concern at Cristo Rey and at all of the other Cristo Rey model schools.  Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to CR schools. The Cristo Rey Network is working hard to collect better data about student performance and is undertaking a broad longitudinal study.  In addition, they’ve partnered with over twenty universities (including Georgetown, Harvard, Marquette, DePaul, Bentley, and many others) to develop a variety of different programs and initiatives aimed at better preparing Cristo Rey’s students for college and increasing their retention rate in college.  More information about these post-secondary initiatives is available at the Cristo Rey Network website (

4.) Almost half of the student who enroll in Cristo Rey fail to graduate from Cristo Rey.  You and Whitman both cite this as a major focus for the Cristo Rey network.  But is this necessarily a bad thing?  While it means that Cristo Rey fails to reach every student in need, it also means that students at Cristo Rey have fewer negative peer influences.

Cristo Rey has a fairly rigorous application process, though there is no entrance exam.  The school goes to great pains to ensure that the students selected to attend are capable of graduating and attending college.  In theory, those students who would be true negative influences are screened out in the application process.  As a result, Cristo Rey views the departure of any student who is accepted into the school as a failure.  It also means that a seat in the school (as you mentioned in your post, the school has become selective and now turns away more students than it can admit) goes unused during some or all of a school year. At Cristo Rey, these departures are also problematic in that each one represents a decrease in revenue.  Every student works to earn money.  If 20% of the student body departs, revenue falls by 20%.  All of the schools exist in a tight economic space.  Maintaining full enrollment is key to maintaining their financial health. 

5.) You mention that a number of teachers were troubled by the question that some students raised as to why they have to work to earn their schooling but students at schools like St. Ignatius to not.  Do you think this is a sign that we continue to treat poor students differently in our educational system, or do the positives of the work program outweigh any negative implications it might have?

I don’t know that the teachers you’re referring to were as troubled by the question as they were by the reluctance of the administration to let them address it with their students. That makes it sound like I’m trying to sidestep the question.  I’m not.  My answers to the subsequent questions are yes and yes.  Yes, I think students with limited economic means are treated differently, though oftentimes for good/sensible/apparently sensible reasons.  I’m not sure it’s productive, though, to compare St. Ignatius to Cristo Rey.  St. Ignatius is a private college prep school.  The families of the students who attend pay more than $10,000 per year in tuition.  That sum represents approximately 30% of the average family income at Cristo Rey.  The simple fact is that the students who attend Cristo Rey cannot afford to attend St. Ignatius (they also can’t qualify academically… if they’re accepted to St. Ignatius, they cannot attend Cristo Rey).  This is, simply put, economic reality. I think a better question is why some students in greater Chicago can attend fantastic public schools, but the young people in Pilsen have historically been limited to a school that, despite often heroic efforts, has struggled to perform at a consistently high level.  To try and conclude this rambling answer, I don’t feel the fact that the students ask questions about why they “have to” work when other students don’t is necessarily a negative thing.  I think, oftentimes, we attempt to shield students (in most any high school) from some of the economic realities they’ll encounter as they try to finance their college education or when they begin working (hopefully after graduating).  I think the fact that Cristo Rey’s students ask these questions is profoundly positive.  It suggests to me that they’re conscious of what they’re doing, that they’ve made a choice to work and go to school.  As an aside, I think the work program is a tremendous resource to the students.  As I mentioned above, it was conceived largely in response to the economic reality that the school simply would not be feasible as a tuition free institution giving the rising cost of labor.  Sending the students to work could help bridge the gap.  It has become, though, a phenomenal compliment to what goes on in the classroom.

Thanks again to G.R. Kearney for providing thorough responses.  As a side note, for anybody else waiting for a turn to read Whitman's book, Fordham has made a PDF version available here.

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