January 26, 2007

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Extra effort: New school’s work-study approach hopes to change lives

Danny Fillenwarth and Providence Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp work to recruit students from low-income families to Providence Christo Rey High School in Indianapolis.

Danny Fillenwarth and Providence Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp work to recruit students from low-income families to Providence Christo Rey High School in Indianapolis.

By John Shaughnessy

The phone call came from a desperate mother begging for help.

Her car had just broken down as she tried to drive her son to what she considered his destiny with a unique private Catholic high school in Indianapolis.

“Please,” the mother begged, “our car has broken down. My son wants to take the placement test. Could someone come down and pick him up?”

Providence Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp listened to the mother’s plea. As the president of Providence Christo Rey High School, she knew that she and her small staff had already worked long stretches of late nights to recruit potential students. She knew she really couldn’t spare anyone to leave the school building on the near west side of Indianapolis to pick up the boy at 7 a.m. on the day of the placement test.

So Sister Jeanne naturally told the mother to relax, that someone would soon come to pick up her son.

“I like to think that’s a way we reach out, in caring,” says Sister Jeanne. “We had a mom in distress and her son was upset because he desperately wants to come to this school. It wasn’t easy to send someone out but we did. We meet them on their terms. We listen to their stories.”

As Providence Christo Rey High School in Indianapolis continues to recruit students for its first academic year—2007-08—that sense of caring has been a key attraction. So is the school’s place in a national network that is building a reputation for helping students from low-income families through a work-study program that is changing lives.

Twelve Christo Rey high schools are already open across the country, according to Anne O’Dea, the director of institutional advancement at the Indianapolis school. Six more schools, including the one in Indianapolis, are scheduled to open for the 2007-08 school year.

The schools feature “a work-study program in which all students have entry-level jobs in some of the nation’s biggest companies to gain real world professional experience, develop a strong work ethic and pay for a significant part of their tuition,” according to informational material from the schools.

The results have been striking for the schools which exclusively serve low-income youth.

Ninety-nine percent of the 2006 graduates of Cristo Rey schools were admitted into college and 95 percent enrolled, according to O’Dea. She also says that the four-year dropout rate for the Class of 2006 was 2.6 percent compared to 30 percent nationally.

“It became a way for students who came from backgrounds where not much was expected to get corporate skills, to learn how to form partnerships and build networks, and—perhaps the greatest lesson learned—to discover for the first time that they could be something,” O’Dea notes.

Sister Jeanne knows that success from her 10 years of being involved with a similar school in Chicago.

“I’ve seen the difference this kind of school makes,” says Sister Jeanne, who was the assistant principal of Providence St. Mel High School from 1981 to 1991. “It was right smack in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago. I’d watch kids walk across the stage on graduation [day] and say, ‘This is someone who’s going to be alive when he’s 25.’

“We had high expectations. We worked them hard and every single one of them went to college. One of my favorites is Steve. He was a basketball player. He came to us and he couldn’t read. Every Saturday, one of our sisters would show up and work with Steve. The last time I saw Steve, he had finished his master’s degree and began his doctorate in sociology.”

Danny Fillenwarth has seen that kind of influence in his own life. At 26, he is now the director of admissions for Providence Christo Rey High School in Indianapolis. He still remembers clearly the extra efforts his single mother made to provide an education for him at St. Thomas Aquinas School and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, both in Indianapolis.

“I see the students who come to me and they get it right away,” says Fillenwarth, who also earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Notre Dame. “They see this school as their ticket. Where I see the connection most is in the parents—how they want it so much for their children. I saw that in my mom.

“I really believe in Catholic education. When I heard about Providence Christo Rey, it reminded me of why Catholic education came to this country, and why there’s even more of a need for it now. The values, the accountability toward each other—students to students, students to faculty, faculty to students—just the family environment that Catholic schools represent.”

Both Sister Jeanne and Fillenwarth know the long hours will continue as they try to recruit at least 100 students and supervise the renovation of the school building. They also promise that the extra efforts toward potential students and their families will continue.

Sister Jeanne says that focus is required for the school’s ultimate goal: “My hope is that every student who will walk through these doors will leave stronger in their faith, academically prepared to be whatever they want to be, and willing to shape a more just and human society.” †

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