Bill Heiser is the president of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore. Established in 2007, Cristo Rey is a Catholic, Jesuit, co-ed, college preparatory school for students in grades nine through twelve. Over its 10-year history, one hundred percent of graduating students have been accepted into college. Cristo Rey currently enrolls 350 students from lower-income families in Baltimore City. The school is part of the Cristo Rey Network, which spun out of the original Cristo Rey school founded in Chicago in 1996. The Networks 32 high schools are located in urban areas throughout the country. All students participate in the Corporate Internship Program through which they finance a significant portion of the cost of their education.
EDWIN WARFIELD: What led you to Cristo Rey?
BILL HEISER: I was leading a school in Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County. I was a principal at two different high schools. I received a phone call one day: Cristo Rey was looking for a president of the school. I knew about Cristo Rey because Father Bill Watters had started it several years earlier, and I remembered the innovative model of it and I remember the commitment and the mission of the school: meeting the needs of students that were highly motivated, but may not have had an opportunity to be at a great school.
That stuck with me. When I went in for a conversation to talk about the school, what hit me was an opportunity to really turn education upside down—and Cristo Rey does that. Cristo Rey is a school that’s innovative—it’s a college prep school, but it has an innovative corporate internship program. In all the other schools that I had been a part of, we could never build such a thing for students—to provide them the opportunity to go across the Baltimore Region into corporate internships—and that ultimately is what led me to Cristo Rey.
Q. Can you give us some background about the school? How did it get started?
A. The first Cristo Rey was set up in 1996 in Chicago, in the Pilsen neighborhood. In Chicago back then, they were looking for an innovative way to try and give students a quality education and an aspirational education. That was started in Chicago by Father Foley. Then, in 2005 or so, Father Bill Watters had a vision for Cristo Rey in Baltimore. Father Watters is a legend in Baltimore. He started to reach out to individuals who should hear about this model, who believed in kids and believed in the power of education. He reached out to our founders, and they went on a plane trip, some of them went on a plane trip—two different trips to Chicago—just to learn about the school.
The first takeaway from that is, if you talk to the founders: 1. They believe in kids and they believe in the power of education; 2. they really want to be involved in something that is scalable and that is effective. And those are two things that Cristo Rey is: scalable and effective. In 2007 Cristo Rey Jesuit Baltimore started. It started with our founding president, Father Swope, and a founding principal, and they did an amazing job for the first 7–8 years of standing the school up and starting it from the ground up, which is not an easy task. When you think about starting a school one grade level at a time—first 9th grade, then we’ll add a 10th grade and so on and so forth four years—and then you have a full school, 350 students. And every student, because they come from a modest background, modest income, our families and our students require a scholarship, so every student receives a scholarship from a generous benefactor.
As important as that is they all also have a corporate internship. They travel around the region, they go to a corporate internship once a week for all four years of high school and that helps offset the cost of their education. That’s how the school was funded.
Q. What’s unique about the Cristo Rey model?
A. We have 350 students in our school—grades 9 through 12. Our students are coming from all over the city of Baltimore, every single zip code; in fact, our freshman class right now comes from 43 feeder middle schools. So, that gives you an idea in terms of scale in Baltimore City. This isn’t a school that just skims off the top and tries to take the top students. We’re looking for students in the middle, the students that will probably fall between the cracks unfortunately, and they have fallen between the cracks for decades. Those are the students we are trying to reach. In terms of our corporate internships, every single student goes out to a corporate internship, and we have 125 corporate partners that support our students. They’re based all around the Baltimore region. They go up as far as Sparks, and they go up to Columbia, and even down as far as Laurel, to travel and to get these opportunities.
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