Culture

Earning their keep

Culture | EDUCATION: For students at San Juan Diego Catholic High School, work is about more than paying for clothes and entertainment. The concept seems to be catching on

Issue: "John Kerry's dream," March 13, 2004

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.

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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.

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