August 24, 2007

The power of a dream: Providence Cristo Rey High School opens doors

Brittnee Vaughn, left, and Terry Majors talk about their first days as members of the first class of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis.

Brittnee Vaughn, left, and Terry Majors talk about their first days as members of the first class of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis.

By John Shaughnessy

You could see it in the hope-filled eyes of Pamela Ford, a mother who desperately wants to give her son the opportunity for a better future.

You could hear it in the hushed tone of Brittnee Vaughn, a 14-year-old girl who suddenly realized how many people were praying, supporting and sacrificing for her and her fellow students.

It was also there in the smile of Providence Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp, a smile that didn’t seem like it would ever dim until the emotion of this remarkable day overwhelmed her for a moment and the tears pooled in her eyes and choked her words.

All those emotions reflected the power of a dream and what a dream can mean to a parent and a child—and to the people who give their hearts and their souls to making those dreams come true.

All those emotions flowed on Aug. 15 during the grand opening celebration of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis, the latest school 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.

As students, staff members, parents and supporters poured into the un-air-conditioned school gymnasium for the dedication Mass and ceremony on a steamy morning, they learned that 96 percent of the 2006 graduates of Cristo Rey high schools headed to college. They also learned that the four-year dropout rate for the Class of 2006 was 2.6 percent compared to 30 percent nationally.

Yet, most of all, they learned about the incredible story of how Providence Cristo Rey came to be in Indianapolis—a school that didn’t have a staff, a building or any students two years ago.

Some people believe the dream for Providence Cristo Rey began 11 years ago when a similar school was established in Chicago by Jesuit Father John Foley—the current president of the national Cristo Rey network of 19 schools—who believes that “every child deserves a chance” and “we shouldn’t tolerate any more waste of talent in our big cities today.”

Others point to a meeting at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods about five years ago when the Sisters of Providence were approached about leading the effort for the school by Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, the archdiocese’s vicar general, and Annette “Mickey” Lentz, executive director of Catholic education and faith formation for the archdiocese.

Many point to the hiring of Sister Jeanne two years ago as the president of the school, a wisp of a woman whose non-stop energy is matched by an undaunted resolve to make a difference in the lives of young people.

Yet as Sister Jeanne addressed the overflowing crowd inside the gymnasium—a crowd that included Father Foley, Msgr. Schaedel and Lentz—she said the dream really began in 1840 with the inspiration of St. Theodora Guérin, the French sister who came to Indiana and forever changed the course of education in this state by establishing and staffing schools that gave people from all backgrounds the opportunity to learn and grow in their faith.

Indeed, Sister Jeanne said her mantra for the past two years in trying to establish Providence Cristo Rey is the advice that St. Theodora gave her fellow Sisters of Providence more than 160 years ago: “Have confidence in the Providence of God that so far has never failed us. Grope along slowly. Be patient, be trustful. And rest assured, if you lean with all your weight on Providence, you will find yourself well-supported.”

A short time later, her smile that had been constant through the morning gave way to a few tears as she looked out on the crowd of supporters, volunteers, staff members, corporate sponsors, parents and students who have embraced the work-study concept of Cristo Rey schools.

“How can I ever thank you here today,” she told them as her voice momentarily choked with tears, “for being the heart and hands and voice of Providence to us these past two years? Because you chose to listen to the lurings of a provident God, and because you chose to respond to what you heard, 100 young men and women have an incredible future awaiting them.”

That future includes “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 network.

The hope of a better future is what led Pamela Ford to send her 15-year-old son, Courtland Tunstill, to Providence Cristo Rey.

“It’s not only the networking of the companies, but the individualized attention and the education,” Ford said as she sat in the gymnasium. “I like that 96 percent of their graduates go to college. You can’t really get a job that is going to support you and your family without a college education. I want him to do well. I want him to give back to his community.”

Ford paused before lowering her voice and giving another reason for sending her son to the school: “Every time I’ve been here, they’ve known me, they’ve asked about me. I know that if they cared about me, they would care about him.”

That’s the combination of qualities that the Cristo Rey network strives to offer in such cities as Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Baltimore, Los Angeles and New York, says Father Foley.

“Eleven years ago, this was just an idea,” Father Foley said. “Eleven years ago, we didn’t know if this was going to work. Today, there are 4,600 students in the network. By 2012, we hope to have 12,000 students in 34 schools. A day like this is what picks you up and keeps you going.”

Father Foley joined Msgr. Schaedel in celebrating the dedication Mass. In his homily, Msgr. Schaedel encouraged the students to make the most of their opportunities, to make the right choices in building a life that reflects the gifts they’ve been given.

During the dedication ceremony, the students also stood and read the pledge they have made to the school, a pledge based upon their thoughts and promises.

In part, the pledge reads, “We promise to put God first and to strive always to do the right thing.

“We promise … to create a world in which dreams beyond belief can be achieved, bringing hope to those who have none and happiness for those who lack it.

“We are confident that if we keep these promises, we will take the lead in creating a more just society and in building a brighter, more hopeful future for ourselves and others.”

After the dedication ceremony, Brittnee Vaughn lingered in the gymnasium. The 14-year-old freshman at the school said she was touched by all the words of support she heard, by all the people who showed up on a Wednesday morning to crowd into a hot gymnasium.

“I didn’t realize it meant so much to so many people,” Brittnee said in a hushed, reverent voice. “I didn’t realize there were so many people who want the school to be a success. It means I want to make people here proud of me. I want to take advantage of the opportunity.”

It was the sharing of a dream on a day when the dream of a school became a reality. †

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