Today, I’m happy to share my recent interview with Megan Sweas, author of the new book Putting Education to Work: How Cristo Rey High Schools Are Transforming Urban Education.
I’m a journalist interested in political and social justice issues and world religions. After graduating from Northwestern University, I did a year of service at a youth media organization through Amate House, a Catholic volunteer program. I then became an editor at U.S. Catholic magazine, where I covered issues like education, urban violence, and poverty. I left U.S. Catholic to go to grad school at University of Southern California as an Annenberg Fellow, also parting ways with my family in Chicago – parents, brother, sister-in-law, and two adorable nephews.
I decided to try my hand at freelancing after grad school, and soon, I was approached by HarperOne and asked to write, “Putting Education to Work”.
Q: Congratulations on the publication of Putting Education to Work. Please provide an overview of the project and share why — as an accomplished journalist — you wanted to tell this story.
I’ve been following Cristo Rey for a long time, so when HarperOne asked me to write the book, I was eager to do so.
I had known about Cristo Rey since it started. As an Amate volunteer, I worked at a charter school three miles away from the original Cristo Rey school in Chicago. I watched the two schools play basketball (Cristo Rey lost…badly) and I played basketball with their volunteers. In my last year at U.S. Catholic, we also had a student working with our editorial staff one day a week.
From my volunteer year, I knew of the great challenges of urban education, and I also knew of their impressive results of the Cristo Rey program, but it was interesting to find out how and why the program works. I started with this basic question, and I quickly found out that high expectations drive the students, teachers, schools, and network forward. This became an essential theme in the book.
Q: For those who do not know of the Cristo Rey network, can you offer a brief overview of what differentiates these from other Catholic schools?
Cristo Rey Network schools only admit students from low-income families. All students work at a paid corporate “internship” five days a month. Corporate sponsors hire teams of four students to perform one full-time equivalent entry-level job (each student works one day a week, then they rotate through the fifth day). The schools use the revenues of the work-study program to pay most of the school’s operating budget (the rest is made up by donations, and a small amount of tuition).
The students who go to Cristo Rey schools are typically two years behind grade level when they enter as freshman, but graduates of the schools enroll in college at the same rates of the highest-income Americans.
The book explores the lessons learned from the experience of the Cristo Rey Network. The work-study program effectively helps students see their futures and acquire the character skills to help them get there. Not all schools can adopt the work-study model, but they can help students understand the application of their education in other ways.
But Cristo Rey schools are more than the work-study program. In the book, educators and those concerned with our next generations can see what it takes to run an effective school, from school leadership to curriculum.
I also hope that the stories of students, teachers, and administrators will inspire people – whether it is to get involved with a local school, open a new one, or push for better education for all students.
Q: How can this book support and encourage families who may not have access to a Cristo Rey school?
I learned a lot about how education works in writing this book. I think it’s valuable for any parent to understand something about effective teaching strategies or the goals of a teacher. In reporting the book, I was surprised how interested I was not only in the students’ stories, but also in the teachers’ stories.
And if your school isn’t implementing best practices or pushing students to achieve, being informed will help you advocate for improving the school. Cristo Rey schools emphasize that they supplement and not replace the family, and in fact, they find that students who succeed at their schools have an encouraging figure in their lives outside of school.
Q: In an era of great challenges for parochial educational institutions, what are some of the key ingredients that have helped the network to thrive?
It’s key that the schools do not rely solely on donations to pay their bills. The corporate work-study program is a sustainable income source.
The schools also have active governing boards that involve business, education, religious, and civic leaders. Inside the school, the leadership model splits responsibilities between a president, a principal and a work-study coordinator. This collaborative leadership style has been shown to be effective for Catholic schools.
It is also essential that the schools do no rest on the laurels of “Catholics know education.” They implement the best of education reform research and provide significant professional development to teachers. The schools that can hire – and retain – a good staff and faculty also have an advantage.
Q: How can our readers learn more about your writing? What’s next for you?
I’m writing from Italy. I have a grant from the International Reporting Project to write about the role of the church on the migration crisis and human trafficking here. You can follow me on Twitter (@msweas) or check out my website at MeganSweas.com.
Megan Sweas is the author of Putting Education to Work: How Cristo Rey High Schools Are Transforming Urban Education, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (Hardback; $24.99).
Copyright 2014 Lisa M. Hendey