School Work

On Wednesdays, high school junior Carlon Harris goes corporate.

Carlon runs the front desk at the Innovation Depot, a business incubator in Birmingham, Ala. Today there's a public meeting with TV cameras and state senators and, for Carlon, a lot of scurrying to help make the event run smoothly.

"I prefer quieter days, but I gotta do what I gotta do," he says with a smile as he hustles off the copy room to scan some documents. With his pale yellow shirt and black-and-yellow tie, Carlon looks the part of a young urban professional.

Carlon goes to a private, Catholic school where a work-study assignment in a white-collar business is at the core of the program. He attends Birmingham's Holy Family Cristo Rey High School, one in a national network of urban Catholic schools that mix the classroom with the workplace. The Cristo Rey approach teaches real-world job skills, like how to dress and behave professionally.

It also demonstrates to teenagers who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods - where the dropout rate often tops 50 percent - how critical an education is to landing a well-paying job. To a ninth-grader, college and adulthood can be a far-off abstraction. Going to work every day can make the stakes more tangible.

And the $5,375 Carlon Harris earns over the course of the school year pays 70 percent of his tuition at Holy Family.

Carlon is 16 years old. He started at the Innovation Depot in ninth grade. In addition to running the front desk there, Carlon sets up meeting rooms and does computer work and other office tasks. He gets an up-close view of the business world. "I get a chance to experience how a company is made from the ground up," he says.

"He's at the front desk - he's the first impression people get of this organization," says CFO Gerry O'Toole. "Everything he does is right on the money."

Carlon says the job has helped mold him from a "silly young freshman" into someone more capable. "I remember the first day I came here, the big glass doors and being intimidated. Now I'm able to speak to people. I'm able to pronunciate. And I speak out in class more. When you come into the [Cristo Rey] program you become more profound. You have to use your noodle."

Some Holy Family students don't succeed as easily in the white-collar world. O'Toole says he had to dismiss a different Cristo Rey student, who was too timid and unmotivated. "She would be behind the counter and never look up at people, never greet people," O'Toole says. "I had to coach her quite a bit."

If students wash out in the workplace, the school will try to retrain them and set up a second chance with another company. But if an underlying mental or emotional disability is the problem, the students finish the school year but aren't invited back, according to Jan Fuller, director of the school's corporate internship program. "If they can't stay on task, then they can't stay," Fuller says. "That's the basis of the program."

There are 6,000 students enrolled in Cristo Rey schools across the country. The network is part of a larger, informal movement in American education to reverse the so-called "achievement gap" between students from poor families and those who are more affluent. Because African American and Latino students are more likely to be poor, studies say they are roughly two to three years of learning behind white students of the same age. A recent report by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company estimated the cost of the achievement gap at $310 billion or more annually in lost economic growth.

For Cristo Rey students themselves, the stakes are high. Educational achievement is closely related to how much money a person makes. It's also critical for young people who hope to climb out of family poverty. According to the EPE Research Center - an educational think tank - the median annual income for high school dropouts in the nation's biggest cities is about $14,000. High school graduates earn about $24,000. Workers with a college degree earn a median income of about $45,000.

The achievement gap for African Americans is particularly vivid when it comes to unemployment. EPE reports that in 2008, black dropouts had an average jobless rate of 69 percent. At the same time, only about 7.5 percent of black adults with college degrees were jobless.

On one level, Cristo Rey students already have a big advantage. They have to go through entrance tests and a rigorous interview, so just being accepted to a college prep school means they have the capacity to achieve. It also means that someone in their lives got them enrolled. But there's a long way to go.

From Chicago to Birmingham

The first Cristo Rey (Latin for "Christ the King") program opened in a largely Mexican neighborhood of Chicago in 1996. Now there are 24 Cristo Rey schools in urban communities, including Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Omaha, Cleveland, Brooklyn and Baltimore. Most of the students qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program - a typical marker for children in poverty. Latinos make up 56 percent of the students, African Americans 34 percent. The Cristo Rey Network claims a dropout rate of just 3 percent and a college acceptance rate of 99 percent, though some of its schools are too new to have had a graduating class yet.

The Cristo Rey business plan works this way: Employers pay the school what they would pay a full-time, entry-level employee, minus benefits. In Birmingham that's $21,500. That one job is shared among four students, who each work on a different week day. A student's work-study income pays about 70 percent of that student's tuition. Parents pay a fee based on their income - sometimes less than $100 a month. Foundations, charities and donations make up the rest. The Cristo Rey Network is sponsored by dozens of major corporations and by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropies.

In Birmingham, Holy Family recruits students through a mostly shoe-leather marketing campaign. The school drops leaflets off at beauty parlors, barber shops and churches. School officials target low-income neighborhoods and hand out leaflets door to door. They work just as hard recruiting businesses to employ their students.

Holy Family is located in a neighborhood known as Ensley. It was once a stable, working-class community built around one of the city's many steel mills. With abundant coal and iron ore mines in the region, Birmingham was known as the Pittsburgh of the South.

"Steel was the blood that flowed through the veins of Ensley," says William Kindall, a lifelong resident and head of the Holy Family Elementary School. Kindall's father worked in the mill, where union wages meant a good living for people with only an eighth or 12th grade education. "We had three meals a day and were living in decent homes."

But when the U.S. steel industry collapsed, so did the Ensley mill. It closed in 1979. The ruins of the sprawling Ensley Works sit rusting on the edge of town. A row of massive chimneys rises from the kudzu and scrub like the stacks of a partially-submerged ocean liner.

Once the mills closed and the jobs vanished, many middle-class families left Ensley for the suburbs, leaving the neighborhood to people who didn't have the means to escape. Today, Ensley's shopping area is patchwork of low-end shops and vacant buildings.

The only jobs in Birmingham that have opened up since the mills closed required workers who "were educationally prepared, or techno-savvy," Kindall says. Like so many other American communities, Birmingham has shifted from a muscle economy to a knowledge economy. But many workers were left behind in the transition. In Birmingham, about 27 percent of residents within the city limits live in poverty. Among large American cities, Birmingham's unemployment rate is one of the 10 worst.

Long Days, High Expectations

Preparing students for the modern, knowledge economy is Holy Family's mission. Hard effort is an expectation. To make up for the day each week spent in the workplace, Holy Family students have longer-than-average school days the rest of the week. Teachers are available after school to help those who need special attention. The dress code - in school as well as on the job - is a notch upwards of business casual: neckties and slacks for the boys, blouses and sweaters for the girls. No jeans. Absolutely nothing baggy or provocative. Sensible shoes.

Holy Family's president, Father Alex Steinmiller, says the rigorous college prep atmosphere, coupled with an entry-level corporate job, instills determination in his 159 students. And determination is what's needed, he says, to climb out of the economic underclass. "It's perseverance, it's patience, it's long-suffering - any word you want to use - that's the value the cycle of poverty chews up."

The work-study job promotes self-confidence and discipline, Steinmiller says, traits that will help the students get through high school and succeed in college. "The discipline of coming to a place on time, the discipline of being proactive rather than sitting around," Steinmiller says. "People put trust in them. These are not little after-school jobs."

Patience and perseverance seem particularly elusive for ninth grader Katlin Leshore. On a recent afternoon math class at Holy Family, Katlin loiters at a table in the back corner, cutting up with her friends, paying virtually no attention to the teacher or the problems up on the board.

Katlin, 14, has her hair pulled back in a bun. She wears a smart black top with white neck and collar and a necklace of black beads. "Why you looking at me?" she blusters to a classmate. "You got a problem with me?" A moment later she reaches across the table. "Roderick, give me one of those CDs," she demands.

Math teacher Pamela Cowan is fed up. She fixes Katlin and her cohorts with a fierce eye.

"This is your beginning," Cowan calls out. The class hunkers down for a talking-to. "Algebra I. Ninth grade. You're going to need this. Some of you are going to be architects, drafters, engineers, pharmacists. It's going to take Algebra I so you can be the best at what you do," Cowan says.

That's pretty much how it goes until the period mercifully ends. Then Katlin heads to her last class of the day, biology. She drifts around that classroom, chatting with friends, putting on mascara, rummaging in her handbag. She seems bored and distracted in both math and biology, but they're actually two of her favorite classes.

"I want to go to school and get my science and math degrees," she says later. "I love biology and science. I want to be a medical examiner and then I'm going to be a forensic scientist." In other words, Katlin wants to work on dead people. She got the idea from the popular TV show CSI - Crime Scene Investigation.

Katlin doesn't have a work-study assignment yet. The recession is making it harder for Holy Family to find corporate placements for its students. In October, 32 students were still waiting for white collar jobs. Katlin was assigned to work as a teacher's aide at a Catholic elementary school across town. But she quickly learned some lessons about work life. She got in trouble for talking on her phone and listening to her iPod on the job. The she got caught sleeping while the children were napping. So Katlin got fired.

Katlin and five other ninth graders will undergo a six-week retraining program. After that, the school will decide whether they deserve a second chance at a job placement. The school won't kick anyone out, but if they can't succeed at work, Holy Family won't admit them next year. So, for now, Katlin is in limbo.

"You got to stay on top of her. If you don't she'll play around," says Katlin's mother, Andra Leshore. "When she wants to do something, it's done fast. But then, when she wants to do nothing, for a couple of days she'll do nothing, just flop around the house and be lazy."

Try as she might, it's hard for Andra, 42, to offer Katlin a steady home. Katlin's father is dead. Andra's obesity and health problems mostly confine her to bed. Andra's left leg was amputated because of poor circulation. An ailing grandmother shares the rented house as well, along with Katlin's two sisters. The family lost everything they owned last summer when a previous apartment caught fire. A local charity helped find the new place. The Leshores get by on disability checks and food stamps.

Andra worked as a housekeeper before she got sick. She completed high school but dropped out of college. Her eyes fill with tears when she talks about it. "I want my girls to do better than I did," she says sadly.

In Jan Fuller's experience, family stability is strongly predictive of how well students will perform at Holy Family. "If a parent finished high school and was at the top of their class, their child does well," Fuller says. "If a parent is less educated, that rubs off on the student."

Most of the children at Holy Family are being raised by single parents. Many are living with grandparents. "In some houses the children have someone watching over them," Fuller says. "Some children are left to fend for themselves. Some are left in the house in the dark with nothing to do. School is their only refuge."

Freshman Avis Moore often shifts for himself at home because his mother, Vanessa, is out working two jobs. It's low-paying retail work. But it's work. "I dropped out of high school in 11th grade," Vanessa says. "I've been taking odd jobs ever since. But I've always provided for my kids."

Vanessa is a single mom. Avis says his dad abandoned the family.

Vanessa signed Avis up for private school to keep him away from gangs and trouble-makers. "I come here to work hard and get my education," Avis says. He hopes to be a lawyer when he grows up. "If that doesn't work out, fashion," he adds with teenage certainty. In any case, college is part of Avis's plan. He has two older brothers. One dropped out in 10th grade and is trying to make it as a rapper in New York City. The other finished high school but lives at home and is looking for a job.

Like Katlin, Avis spends early fall waiting for a workplace assignment. He is helping out in the elementary school cafeteria. He is polite and well-dressed, with a trim-fitting vest over his shirt and necktie. In October, Holy Family finds him a job with the University of Alabama Health Information Systems department. He'll be doing office support for technical and health care professionals. Jan Fuller expects it to be a good fit.

Vanessa Moore says she keeps pushing her boys to do better than she did. "I didn't have that parental push," she says. "I push them - you don't want to be like me. And they can't stay with me forever. They got to get out of my house," she says with a laugh.

It's no different at Holy Family than at schools anywhere else: What Vanessa calls "parental push" is one of the most decisive factors in how much a child achieves. And at Holy Family, as with schools everywhere, the level of support, stability and encouragement at home varies greatly from one student to the next.

Carlon Harris's family doesn't have much money, but his mom, Charlotte, was trained as a professional nurse and now works in a bank. Carlon's grandfather helps keep a close eye on the young man, picking him up after school every afternoon.

Avis Moore is an especially focused ninth-grader, but his mom finds it hard to make the $100 monthly tuition payment. Utilities, rent and other bills get in the way. And what with working two jobs, Vanessa can't always be home to make sure Avis stays on track.

Katlin Leshore's support structure at home is made of more tenuous timbers. Her disabled mother and grandmother are loving but home-bound and desperately poor. A loose network of friends and a youth program at a nearby church help organize Katlin's life, but the future largely rests on her shoulders. It's a lot for a 14-year-old to carry.

Father Steinmiller says that one of the biggest obstacles for students at Holy Family is the dooming sense of failure that haunts impoverished communities. His students are long acquainted with fractured families, joblessness, crime and addiction. But each week, when a Holy Family student sees the professional work world, it's a view of what's possible. Steinmiller says poverty is a cycle of hurt that can be broken.

"There's always scars," he says, "but you can have scars and have a great life."

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