Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Book Discussion: More than a Dream: How One School's Vision is Changing the World (The Cristo Rey Story)

After reading David Whitman's book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the new Paternalism last August, I got a copy of a book on one of the schools profiled in the book: Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago.  Unfortunately, I let G.R. Kearney's book, More than a Dream, sit on my bookshelf for over a year before I picked it up this week.

The book recounts the story of the founding of Cristo Rey, from idea through year seven.  Though Kearney worked at the school for two years, the book is mostly dispassionate -- and certainly more dispassionate than expected given the title.  Kearney did a good job of writing the school profile that he promised and avoiding the sappy memoir that it could have turned into.

Cristo Rey was initially conceived in 1992 by Father Brad Schaeffer, at that time the Provincial for the Chicago region, who respected the elite Jesuit schools in the city and around the country (he'd earlier been principal of one), but felt that Jesuits were called to help those with the most need.  He eventually settled on opening a high school in the poor and heavily-Hispanic Pilsen/Little Village neighborhoods.  For a while, various people puzzled over how to create a school that would be affordable to the neediest residents of the school.  They eventually settled on a plan for students to work at firms around town one day a week (later adjusted to one day/week + an additional day/month), with the firms paying the school directly (well, actually a separately incorporated non-profit org connected to the school) in order to fund the students' education.  After opening in 1996, the school got off to a bit of a rocky start, but eventually was able to attract millions of dollars in grants and now routinely sends 90+% of its students to college -- eventually leading people around the country to ask how they could replicate the school.  The Cristo Rey Network now consists of 24 schools around the country.

The book alternates between the school's story and the story of a number of Cristo Rey students.  Though too many details, and far too many names, were included, the story generally flows well.  The readers are initially hit with a number of Jesuit abbreviations that would confuse many, but Kearney does take a little time to explain Jesuit history and get readers up to speed.  Personally, I would have appreciated a glossary of Jesuit terms and abbreviations in the front or back of the book.

Nonetheless, the book definitely provides useful knowledge for anybody interested in urban education.  It's no substitute for seeing schools in person, but it's the next best thing.

While the most distinctive feature of Cristo Rey is its jobs programs, the book spends more time discussing the day-to-day workings of the school.  And the Cristo Rey that comes into focus as the book progresses is one that engages in fairly liberal pedagogy . . . teachers believe in creating courses that will engage students rather than simply teaching the basics.  The principals of the school describe the school as "student-centered" again and again.  In the first few years, the students took a course their first year designed to "equip them with the ability to constantly learn what they felt they needed to know" rather than "teaching knowledge for the sake of knowledge" (pp. 200-201).  Students took part in an "Active Learners" capstone project, explained thusly by one teacher: "Traditionally, we think of students as absorbing the knowledge of the teachers.  We wanted to teach the students to actually create knowledge, to become producers of knowledge." (p. 209)

Teachers spent far more time planning curricula than at most schools because they seemed to be obsessed with finding a better way to do things.  Kearney writes that many teachers routinely stayed until at least 8pm and arrived around the crack of dawn (which might have been one of the reasons that so few of the founding teachers were still around by the end of the book).  The book clearly depicts a school in which teachers see their job as more of a calling than anything else; indeed, the school hires more and more volunteer teachers as the school grows.

What really jumped out at me, though, was that the portrait Kearney painted of Cristo Rey was almost entirely different than the one painted by Whitman.  In Whitman's book, he extols the virtues of Cristo Rey's paternalistic, no-nonsense approach to education.  In Kearney's book, he depicts a notably progressive faculty experimenting with new ways of helping students -- though the school does seem to become more traditional as the years pass by.  Whitman writes that Cristo Rey's jobs training program "provides a dose of cultural imperialism" (p. 131), while Kearney seems to emphasize that the jobs training program evolved to be less didactic and more interactive over time.  Kearney describes the angst over expelling students, particularly ones that had been fired from their jobs.  Eventually the faculty decides to create a second chance program for these students.  Whitman quotes the principal as saying "If a student loses a job a second time, we would ask them to leave.  You can't be dubbed unemployable and be a student here" (p. 133).  Kearney describes one student (who graduated) who "quickly became a discipline problem," who, "by the end of his first semester, was handing in less than 25% of his homework assignments" (pp. 245-246).  Whitman writes of a school where no nonsense is tolerated and a student complains of getting detention for chewing gum, wearing tight pants, missing two homework assignments, coming to school or class late, or talking to friends (p. 133).
I'm not sure if these versions of Cristo Rey are incompatible, or if the authors just see the school in a different light.  But it's very clear that Whitman views the school's no-nonsense, paternalistic approach to education as its defining characteristic while Kearney mentions very little that would seem to indicate this is one of the school's notable features.  Given that Whitman observed the school a few years after Kearney did it may also be the case that the school evolved from a progressive approach to a more zero tolerance approach over the years.

While it seems clear from both accounts that Cristo Rey is doing a remarkable and laudable job, and I very much appreciate both their innovative approach to education and their dedication to an important goal, the policy person in me can't help but worry about four possible shortcomings:

1.) The student body changed dramatically over the course of the first five years or so.  In the beginning, the school would accept nearly everybody that applied.  Not only was the school in one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago, it seemed to be enrolling some of the worst students in that neighborhood.  But as the years went by, the school gained prestige and acclaim . . . and admissions became more and more selective.  The school still focused exclusively on children from low-income families, but the student body more and more was composed of the cream of the crop from the surrounding areas.  I certainly can't blame the school for wanting to enroll better students (not to mention expel troublemakers), but I share the same concern expressed by many of the teachers in the book: what happens to the types of students who initially enrolled -- the students who haven't had much success, but are willing to try?  Who's going to educate them?

2.) As both authors acknowledge, the attrition rate is very high in the school.  Kearney pegs the graduation rate at all Cristo Rey schools as just under 60% (p. 374) and both authors note that raising this rate is a prime goal for the schools' leaders.  While each of the schools may do a phenomenal job with the students that remain in them, I can't help but wonder what happens to the other students.  And I again pose the question: who's going to educate them?

3.) While the phenomenally fast replication of Cristo Rey is quite remarkable, the model can only be replicated so many times.  It's good to have schools providing the poorest kids with a fantastic education, but there simply aren't enough firms with job openings to replicate this model more than maybe a few times in one city -- clearly all 100+ high schools in NYC can't operate this way.  So even if this model proves to be the savior for a number of kids, which is both impressive and important, we still have a long way to go to solve urban education in this country.

4.) Last but not least, I share the same concern raised by some of the students and faculty at Cristo Rey: why do the poorest kids have to spend a day at work each week instead of at school in order to get a first-rate education?  The students at the other Jesuit schools attend five days each week.  I'm torn on this.  On the one hand, it seems exceedingly likely that the experience at work is a formative and valuable one for the students.  On the other hand, it troubles me that we seem to have no qualms creating different kinds of schools for our poorest children.

Despite those qualms, I have little doubt that the people running Cristo Rey are remarkable and deserving of every bit of attention they have received.  Kearney's book is an excellent, and easily readable, description of how the school came about and how it overcame numerous obstacles.  It doesn't have the heft of a research volume, but it's equally illuminating.

1 comment:

Mr. D said...

I'm not surprised by the dichotomy between the two books, as Jesuit education involves this wierd duality of innovation and traditionalism. That's probably why I enjoyed my time in a Jesuit college.

The Jesuit system, as a whole, is focused on teaching methodology, from younger students through college. Content has often been a controversial issue, as Jesuit schools usually give a great deal of laxity to subjects like English, history, science, etc. but become more rigid and orthodox in matters such as ethics, philosophy, etc. They are Catholic priests on spiritual steroids, after all.

I share your concerns about the school's viability and mission now that its renown has made it more selective: a problem shared by KIPP schools and some successful charter schools. Is Cristo Rey still an oasis for disadvantaged students? Time will tell.