FEL ESIA RODRIQUEZ STANDS behind the reception desk in the marble-floored lobby of the Chancery of the Catholic Diocese of Austin, Texas. She answers the phone, greets visitors, and answers questions from a couple of reporters as though she's been doing it for years. But she's only 14 years old and a full-time high-school student working toward a college prep diploma at San Juan Diego Catholic High School.
On Thursdays Fel Esia doesn't attend classes. Instead, she arrives at school where she catches a van along with other students in the D work group who have jobs at Dell, the Austin Lyric Opera, law firms, and advertising agencies. Each student puts in a full 8:30-to-5:00 workday before being dropped off at the school at the end of the day.
Combining work and school is not new. Students earning vocational degrees have often gone to school half days and worked in their chosen trades-hairdresser or auto mechanic-in the afternoon. Other high-school students work after school to pay for clothes and entertainment. But the money the students at San Juan Diego earn goes back to the school to cover more than two-thirds of the cost of tuition.
San Juan Diego is modeled after Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, which was founded in 1996 to provide affordable Catholic education to low-income students in a neighborhood where a third of the students don't even graduate from high school and most families qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school's design, which sprang from the need to answer the question, How do we make Catholic education affordable? has been so successful that it has launched a nationwide movement and caught the eye of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Together with the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation, the Gates Foundation announced plans to give $18.9 million to expand the number of schools modeled after Cristo Rey; about $500,000 is going to San Juan Diego. In its press release announcing the grant, the Gates Foundation said, "These schools offer a rigorous curriculum that prepares all students for college. The small setting enables individualized instruction and a personalized culture with a climate of respect and responsibility."
Currently five schools are open and six more are under development. San Juan Diego was the third Cristo Rey school to open. All the schools share a rigorous, traditional Catholic school curriculum. But what sets them apart is the unique work-study program. The schools enlist participation from local businesses and nonprofits, which provide a full-time entry-level clerical job, split among four students, who each work one day a week and rotate the fifth day. A student works from 8:30 to 5:00 and is responsible for any task a regular employee in that position would perform. The company pays the school and the school handles all the paperwork.
"We don't go to companies asking for contributions or charity," said Ed Doherty, San Juan Diego principal and president. "We're more like a temporary agency. We staff a job for them."
Now in its second year, San Juan Diego has 103 students in 9th and 10th grades, which means it needs 26 jobs-a major undertaking in a city hard hit by the high-tech bust. As the school adds grades, it will need to recruit even more employers, eventually providing about 100 jobs for its expected enrollment of 400. School president and principal Ed Doherty worries a bit about the model's future in a time of economic downturn. But despite relatively high levels of unemployment in Austin over the past several years, all 10 employers from last year recommitted this year and Dell increased its commitment to three jobs (or 12 students). Students work 10 months, from August to June, earning a combined salary of $18,000, which offsets each student's tuition by $4,500, or about 70 percent of the annual cost.
That savings is significant to the families at San Juan Diego; their median income is $30,000. The Austin school draws students from 32 different junior high schools throughout the city and suburbs. Students are predominantly Hispanic and 70 percent would be the first in their family to go to college. The school meets at San Jose Catholic Church, which is situated in a neighborhood of small houses in South Austin. Large live oaks overhang the churchyard. The school's sign has been tagged with graffiti, but inside the church's chain-link fence the grounds and buildings are tidy.
A visitor accustomed to public schools quickly notices the well-groomed San Juan Diego students in their business attire. In the beginning the students wore their business clothes only on their workdays, but given the nature of 14-year-olds, some students forgot which day they were working. Now all students wear their work clothes (slacks or skirts and blouses for girls; dress shirts, ties, and slacks for guys) every day.
Fel Esia, who works at the Catholic diocese, is poised and makes eye contact when she speaks to adults. She says yes, not yeah. She doesn't fiddle with her hair or mumble at the floor. She seems exceptionally mature for a 14-year-old, and that may be why the school placed her in a job that requires extensive interaction with the public.
Not every job requires those kinds of social skills, but all jobs require work readiness. Since work is an integral part of the school's program, judging whether a student is willing to work-and has the basic skills needed to handle an entry-level job-plays a part in whether he is accepted. "They have to be employable," says Mr. Doherty. "They have to be able to do the work."
The school tries to find out during initial interviews whether a student has the right attitude to succeed at the school. Since, according to Mr. Doherty, "the mission of our school is very attractive to parents, but the requirements are a little more demanding-not that attractive to all kids," they are on the lookout "for kids who say, 'I don't want to be here, but my parents want me to be here.'"
Kids who go to Juan Diego know they are agreeing to random drug tests, dress codes, homework, and a standard college prep curriculum that doesn't leave room for many electives. Applicants can attend "shadow days" to see if the school fits. Students lacking social skills necessary for work may be accepted provisionally and monitored for progress during the 2-1/2 weeks of job training they undergo before beginning work.
During that training kids-often preparing to work professionally for the first time-learn professional courtesy. They're told, for instance, that it's not polite to ask the professionals they're working with how much they make. They learn about handshakes, eye contact, and not taking advantage of the privileges they have as employees. Mr. Doherty smiles when he describes specific detail young teenagers need: If your employer stocks his refrigerator with sodas available for free to employees, that doesn't mean kids should stuff their backpacks full of sodas to hand out later to their friends.
The school's vision appeals not only to parents and highly motivated kids. Teachers, especially those in religious orders, want to teach there because the school has a clear mission to make Catholic education possible for all students. The school's 10 teachers have a combined 140-150 years of experience among them. Classes are small and run more like seminars.
Students are grouped according to their workday. Students in an advanced Spanish class sit around a long table and speak in Spanish. The nun leading a class in a discussion of the Good Samaritan urges students to offer modern-day examples of the kinds of people who might have passed by the injured man. The prominent leader? Someone says George Bush, and she runs with it. The prominent religious leader? A student suggests the pope, and she runs with that. A despised stranger? Someone says Osama bin Laden. She accepts the answer, and suddenly the difficulty of the parable is apparent.
A python skin drapes from the ceiling of the science classroom, spanning half its distance. The dead snake, nicknamed Chucho by the students, was donated to the school and skinned by some students and the teacher who took the rest of the carcass to the woods to decompose. Later, he'll return to collect the skeleton for exhibition.
Only in its second year, San Juan Diego is still putting together a sports program and determining what other extracurricular activities to offer. The principal has made clear to coaches and students, however, that work comes first-and that means that kids won't be able to attend after-school practice on a workday. They may even miss games. It may be a hard lesson for some teens and coaches to learn, but it's the bottom line at San Juan Diego.
-with reporting by Courtney Russell