When Nicholas Morales was growing up in Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican-American Southwest Side neighborhood, his only trips to downtown Chicago were yearly treks to see department store windows at Christmas, he recalled.
In 1998, that changed when he enrolled as a freshman at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. It's a coed, Catholic school with 480 students, started by the Society of Jesus--the Jesuits--in the heart of Pilsen.
Morales worked in the information technology department at McKinsey & Co., the management consultancy. He earned $6,250. His father, a construction worker, and mother, a Cook County sheriff's technician monitoring house arrests, paid $2,400 for annual tuition.
"When I started, I was intimidated," said Morales, now 20, a sophomore at Loyola University in Chicago, who continues to work part time at McKinsey.
"Everyone was in business attire," he said. "I'd never seen anything like that before except on television. But they were friendly and encouraging. From not knowing anything about anything, now I'm on the computer desk answering questions from big shots in Germany and New York."
Morales is one of 291 graduates since the school's founding in 1996 who have participated in the novel work-study program. Eighty-two percent of graduates are enrolled in or have graduated from college.
"I haven't seen or heard of anything similar to this work-study model anywhere," said Newton Minow, a founding board member and senior counsel at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, the Chicago law firm.
"It's one of the most significant educational programs to come out of Chicago in recent years. The internships creatively defray part of the education expense, while showing students they can become anyone they want to be."
Of 17 original employers, Minow's was the first law firm. Today, 98 employers participate with 123 jobs.
"Cristo Rey has created a powerful, innovative educational model," said Marie Groark, senior policy officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle. "It's bringing to America's poorest communities the three Rs: rigor, relationships and relevance."
The program succeeds by combining challenging college-prep courses, personalized, supportive settings and motivating curriculums, including internships, she said.
Recently, the foundation donated $22 million to the Cristo Rey Network, a consortium of Cristo Rey and four exact replicas in Denver; Portland, Ore.; Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood; and Austin, Tex.
Rev. John Foley, Cristo Rey's founding president and chairman of the Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network, said plans are in the works for schools in Waukegan, set to open in August, and Cleveland, New York City, Boston (two) and Tucson, Ariz.
Although the number of schools nationwide adopting all or part of Cristo Rey's programs isn't certain, what's clear, say local student and employer participants, is how the program is transforming both groups.
"This program teaches students self-worth," said R. Michael Murray, a Chicago-based member of McKinsey's Advisory Council. McKinsey has employed 16 Cristo Rey students since 1997.
"When students start, it's plain they admire the people they work for," Murray said. "Then, they learn the person they admire is depending on them to do their work. That's the big breakthrough. Students realize the work they're doing is important to the people they like and admire. They realize they're worth something to somebody."
Cristo Rey junior Fabian Vargas has delivered mail and monitored supplies in the Chicago office of R.W. Baird & Co., the Milwaukee-based investment firm, for three years.
"I'm 16 years old and work in R.W. Baird's investment banking department," he said proudly. "Do you know how this makes me feel? If I've done this by age 16, think of what my future can be. Me, whose only job before this was helping my dad, a roofer, outside on weekends."