When high schools put teens to work
Students from low-income families can afford to attend private schools four days per week by agreeing to work in entry-level jobs. But will these kids stay in school?
On a sweltering morning in early August, a couple of dozen teenagers fresh out of eighth grade are lining up outside a classroom to learn from a nun how to give a firm handshake. The reason: These teens, mostly born to Hispanic immigrants, want a shot at success. And corporate America is ready to give it to them, helping to reduce the cost of a Catholic-school education from the Sisters of Notre Dame to just $2,200 per year. In exchange, the students agree to work in a real business setting one day per week.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Notre Dame High School in Lawrence, Mass., is one of 11 schools in the Cristo Rey Network about to start a new school year. The concept behind the network is fueling discussion about the promise and perils of corporate-sponsored private education.
Observers are hopeful the model of company-subsidized tuition could lead to expanded opportunities for low-income students. At the same time, they are also cautious to monitor the influence of companies that smell opportunity in the arrangement.
All seem to agree it's a worthwhile experiment. "For these kids, the alternatives are pretty dismal," says Prof. Henry Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University, "so you can take some risks with them."
What makes this program both risky and promising, as Professor Levin sees it, is its unconventional way of plucking students from rough neighborhoods and plugging them into office jobs when they're 14 or 15 years old.
Here's how it works: Participating companies divide one full-time, entry-level position among four students who take turns doing the work, which typically includes filing, copying, or answering phones. They pay market rates for entry-level work, but students never see the money. Instead, the school gets a check, puts it toward operating expenses, and thereby keeps tuition well below the $5,000 to $9,000 tuition charged by Boston-area Catholic schools.
Levin warns that schools must monitor dropout rates to make sure students aren't quitting to join the wage-earning environment permanently. Since only low-income families qualify for admission, pressure to help support the family can be a potent force in students' daily lives.
But so far, students at Notre Dame High - all of whom participate in the program - see more pros than cons in an arrangement that requires them to dress sharply, arrive on time, and speak in language anyone can understand.
"This school makes you think, 'I can have a future if I just prepare,' " says sophomore Mark Johnson of Kingston, N.H. Before last year, he says, "fooling around in class and getting in trouble" were his specialties. Now he says, "my family has faith in me" as he takes his first steps toward a banking career by doing filing work at a Banknorth branch in Haverhill, Mass.
The four-year-old Cristo Rey Network is not alone in exploring corporate-sponsored education. Florida, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico, for instance, offer state tax credits to companies that donate to subsidize tuition for particular primary- and secondary-school students. What makes Cristo Rey different, education experts say, is its quid pro quo. Companies get inexpensive student labor in exchange for underwriting education costs. But according to school administrators, students benefit as much from their on-the-job education as they do from their classes.
"If we didn't have this work-study program, I don't think that our youngsters would be able to hack a five-day college-preparatory program," says Notre Dame High School's president, Sister Mary Murphy. The confidence and self-respect they gain through their jobs, she says, equip students to do well in a setting more structured and demanding than what they've known at home.