Childhood Poverty: What One School Is Doing To Break the Cycle
It starts like an old joke: A nun, a businessman and some underprivileged kids walk into a bar. But this is no joke, and the only bar in this story is the one that’s being raised in Cincinnati. The city’s childhood poverty rate is more than twice the national average of 21.7 percent. Almost half of all of our kids in Cincinnati – 45.5 percent – live at or below the poverty level.
However, a unique and innovative high school – DePaul Cristo Rey (DPCR) – has set out to change that statistic, and with the help of some notable companies, they are doing it one student at a time.
The nun is Sister Jeanne Bessette, a no-nonsense Chicago teacher/administrator with 27 years of experience in education and a heart for serving kids. When she was recruited to start DPCR and serve as president, she admits that she didn’t know how to start a school from scratch, but knew what a good high school looked like when it was finished. Six years later, the school is not just finished, but bursting at the seams at capacity with 320 kids and recently graduated its third class of seniors. “I give a lot of credit to those brave families that took a risk six years ago and put their kids in a school that didn’t exist,” says Bessette. “It speaks to parents’ strong desire that if there’s something better out there for their kids, they’ll find it.”
DPCR is an affordable, private, college-prep Catholic high school. It was started by the Sisters of Charity in 2011 as a gift to people in the community to give them an opportunity to be part of something special. There are 32 Cristo Rey schools in the U.S. and the model is transforming urban education in America. It uses an unconventional approach that pairs rigorous academics with a Corporate Work Study Program where students earn a substantial portion of the cost of their education, with a proven record of educational success. It’s a diverse school that gives low-income families another school choice, a school that gives their children a leg-up in life.
Enter the businessman: Bob Coughlin, CEO of Paycor, along with 133 other respected Cincinnati leaders and the companies they run. These are the pioneers that believed in DPCR’s model before statistics proved it was a safe bet. Driven by a social and missional responsibility to support local students and address one of the city’s most persistent challenges: childhood poverty. Partnership with DPCR helps companies like Paycor live its mission by providing a tangible way to give back to the community by helping people find and build life skills. The Corporate Work Study Program is a natural fit for Paycor and many other businesses that have a philanthropic desire, or simply cost-effective hiring solutions.
Students spend four days a week in a traditional school setting, and one day working a white-collar, corporate job. By the time they graduate, students have built an impressive resumé of job experience working for some of Cincinnati’s top corporations. Says Karen Crone, Paycor’s chief human resources officer, “We think highly of our relationship with DPCR and have seen a lot of the kinds of talent that DPCR is lucky to have in their school. When the students come to us, they belong to our family; we look out for them and we root for them. We can be a small part of helping them think of themselves in positive and successful ways; it benefits them but also benefits us, too. It matches our mission.”
Corporate partners see that tomorrow’s workforce is in today’s high schools, and they are wisely investing in the skill set of the next generation of employees. Those companies see the benefits of teaching next-gen professional skills like work ethic, teamwork and collaboration, but also giving students a taste of what it’s like to be in the workforce. It demystifies what professional work looks like, and by working alongside people who are older, have more education and work experience, the students gain confidence and see that they are capable. Crone calls it DPCR’s “secret sauce.” “When kids are put in an environment where they couldn’t previously see themselves, it changes everything for them.”
The students are eager to have more IT and banking experience, but every white-collar, corporate job is valuable to the school. DPCR kids are working in healthcare, accounting, insurance, payroll, employee benefits and more. Confidentiality training is an ongoing component in preparing the students to enter the workforce. Some smaller corporate partners and donors support the school by underwriting the cost of students placed with nonprofit organizations.
Because DPCR families are unable to be donors, and because alumni are current college students, the school relies on the generosity of the Cincinnati business community and individuals. Although DPCR boasts an impressive list of Corporate Work Study Partners, the school’s steady growth demands that it obtain more jobs for students. “We need more business leaders to believe in kids and take risks on them,” says Bessette. “The best companies in this city give back to the region. The cool thing about our program is that partners see first-hand what their philanthropy is going toward: shaping and engaging kids in a bigger community.”
The parents of students are among the poorest in Cincinnati, but they aren’t poor when it comes to love and hope for their kids. “Our kids are rich in a million ways, just not with money,” says Bessette.
Poverty is not necessarily financial, it’s exposure to opportunities and this affordable high school boasts 100 percent graduation and college acceptance. “Our message is that if you have the ability and the desire, we will help you find the resources and will arm you with an arsenal of tools to take with you,” says Bessette.
DPCR students take much more than that with them when they graduate. Low-income kids become more economically fragile when they go to college. Money becomes even tighter and often parents without a college mindset don’t understand what it takes for their kids to be there.
“We have a fund that we are hoping to grow to fill gaps, like providing a bus ticket home for the holidays or supplementing a meal plan,” Bessette says. “We’ve even had teachers on our faculty drive to college and bring an alumni home for the holidays or summer break. These are seemingly small stumbling blocks that can quickly turn into insurmountable mountains to someone without the resources. It takes so little to have a kid that doesn’t have those resources drop out of college.”
DPCR makes a 10-year commitment to support and encourage students and alumni, and the kids know it. “We want people to know we are doing something pretty special for these students, but also that the students are doing a whole lot for themselves. When people support our students, they are supporting kids who are already learning to support themselves. It’s a hand up and our kids know they have to do their part. They are this region’s youngest professionals.”
The whole notion of transformation is absolutely critical to DPCR’s mission. It not only prepares students, it teaches them to be the change in their own lives, putting them in the driver’s seat on their road to success. “We can see when the students have that moment when it all falls into place, when they say, ‘I’m going to be more than maybe people would have predicted. It’s in me. I just need to bring it out, trust it and polish it.’ To me, that’s what transformation feels like. You can’t put it on, you have to find it within,” says Bessette.
DPCR is making a real difference in Cincinnati, and Ohio Governor John Kasich not only took notice, he awarded the school the Governor’s School Innovation Award in a ceremony at the Statehouse in January. Kasich commended DPCR for the innovative way students are prepared for college and life beyond, and said that he hopes this model inspires “education envy” across the state.
Inspiration abounds in the halls of DPCR, a school that has taken on the monumental task of changing childhood poverty in Cincinnati. It is giving new hope to students and families, and as the Sisters of Charity predicted, the community has responded that yes, it wants to be a part of something special.
DePaul Cristo Rey is located at 1133 Clifton Hills Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45220. For more information, call 513.861.0600 or visit www.depaulcristorey.org.