Wednesday, June 24, 2009

AMDG in Chicago

I must confess that occasionally I get a bit ticked at the Jesuit jokes. When people hear that I was married at Old St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, by a Jesuit, I inevitably get the old "is that considered a valid marriage by the Church?" Or "yeah it's Jesuit, but is it Catholic?" Ha, ha, LOL.

Three words for ya: Shut up, please.

"Remember that the Christian life is one of action;
not of speech and daydreams."
- St. Vincent Palotti

"The greatest miracle you can perform is to touch the hearts of
your students and inspire them with the Christian Spirit."
- St. John Baptist de La Salle

Mom used to say that "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions." The Jesuits have always been result oriented... and they are getting results. Imagine what they could do if the government woke up and approved vouchers, instead of waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for the public schools and the AFT to save everyone -- no matter how long it takes. Three to four generations of children in the inner city have been promised what should be the most basic of rights; the right to a proper education. And they continue to wait, and they continue to be let down, and we continue to build more prisons.

Freedom of choice and competition are highly regarded ideals in America, except when it comes to education. I see voucher programs no differently then the GI Bill of Rights after WWII, which enabled 8 million servicemen to go to the college of their choice through the omnibus bill that provided college or vocational education for returning veterans, or Pell Grants, which are awarded based on financial need and do not require repayment, to help those students from low-income families attend the college of their choice. Why is the thinking so different for primary and secondary education?

I grow weary of hearing the homiletics from those on both sides of the aisle in Washington DC who because of their wealth have choice -- the choice to send their children to better schools -- while they deny others that choice because they lack wealth. They champion public schools because their children attend good public schools in the suburbs... but would never allow their children to attend public schools in the inner city, where their constituents are forced to send theirs. They talk as if "public education", and by extension public schools -- are all equal. Do you think that parents who send their children to the highly regarded Cherry Hill East High School would happily send their children to Camden High School, just a few miles away? Not only was Camden ranked dead last of the 316 public high schools in New Jersey but it has been identified as "persistently dangerous" in three of the last seven years. It is the height of hypocrisy, which unfortunately is something we come to expect of our politicians. Yet where is the outcry, particularly from those most affected by their callousness?

George Will writes about Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in this Washington Post piece In Chicago, Discipline That Builds Dreams ...

The school exists to nurture a culture of achievement for children with no other option for college preparation, including those who in public schools might be diverted onto a vocational track. It is not skimming off the cream of the crop of local students; it rejects any who can get accepted by, and afford, other Catholic schools. Some especially promising students are directed to Catholic schools that offer scholarships. Which makes CRJHS's college placement rate especially remarkable: In the past seven years, 99 percent of graduates have been accepted by at least one college, 75 percent of them four-year institutions.

CRJHS can have its work program, its entirely college preparatory courses ("the old, dead white man's curriculum," says an English teacher cheerfully), its zero tolerance of disorder (from gang symbols down to chewing gum), its enforcement of decorum (couples dancing suggestively are told to "leave some space there for the Holy Spirit") and its requirement that every family pay something, if only as little as $25 a month. It can have all this because it is not shackled by bureaucracy or unions, as public schools are.

Please enjoy the following article about Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory High School in Chicago. The Jesuits, with their Cristo Rey Network, and the Christian Brothers, with their NativityMiguel Network of Schools, are doing what they have always done; following the mandate of Christ that "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:40)



Priest leads tough city school - with students' help

Wearing his white shirt and tie, Christopher Devron looks very much like the lawyer he seemed destined to be after graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1989.

"At Notre Dame, when you're a liberal-arts major, everyone went to law school, it seemed," says Devron, who grew up in Palatine, took the train to his summer internship at a downtown law firm and was on the path to being a partner in a top firm with a corner office sporting a mahogany desk and view of the lake.

That's not the life he chose.

"I can't imagine anything as exciting and grace-filled as my journey as a Jesuit," says a beaming Devron, 41, having changed into his priestly collar as he sits in his makeshift office with peeling paint and furniture that was cheap when it was new in the 1970s. "This is really what being a Jesuit is about."

Father Devron, ordained as a Catholic priest in 2001, just finished his inaugural year as president of Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School, a revolutionary new high school in the West Side community of Austin, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods of Chicago. Modeled after the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, which opened in 1996 in the Pilsen neighborhood where Devron lives, Christ the King partners puts students to work five days a month in the corporate world as a way to offset the cost of their education.

"It costs $13,000 to educate one student," Devron notes. "Through their work, each student earns more than half of that."

Father Christopher Devron, SJ, a Palatine native who is president of
Christ the King Jesuit School on Chicago's West Side, talks with
15-year-old Deon Hope of Bellwood in the school hallway.

Standing next to a chart showing how his job earned $7,200 for his school, the aptly named Deon Hope, 15, says he's proud of his part-time work. His mom, Diane, drives at least 30 minutes in traffic to bring Deon from their home in Bellwood to the school by 8 a.m. She picks him up when school ends at 4 p.m. On Fridays, Deon gets out of school at 6 p.m. or later after a long bus ride from his job at the prestigious insurance brokerage firm of Arthur J. Gallagher in Itasca.

"How many kids get to put that on their college applications?" Devron quips.

In his suburban cubicle with a view out the floor-to-ceiling windows on the 22nd floor of the plush Gallagher building, Deon jokes with Gloria Lozano, an administrative assistant from Mount Prospect.

"I enjoyed working with him." says Lozano, who always had filing, copying and other chores for Deon.

Friends in Deon's neighborhood see him arriving home so late, and wearing a dress shirt and tie.

"They ask me if I'm just coming from work, and sometimes I am," says Deon, who doesn't hang around much with his old public school friends.

"Oh, no, he's pooped when he gets home," his mom says through a broad smile. "I felt this school would be something different and a challenge. I've seen the improvement. It's worth it. He has more work, but he knows it's worth it."

In the Austin neighborhood, where Devron runs the school out of an old church while they build a $28 million state-of-the-art school nearby, most kids never finish high school. Prison is a more likely destination than college. But not for his students.

"We will not be satisfied until every one of our students successfully graduates from college," Devron proclaims.

Father Christopher Devron. SJ, president at Christ the King Jesuit
School in Chicago, talks with student Deon Hope at school.

Christ the King started the school year with 119 freshmen, most of them from the neighborhood. It finished the year with 90. The academics proved too difficult for some. Others were dismissed for disciplinary reasons.

"We're not going to have a metal detector," Devron says. "We don't tolerate gangs."

With its new building set to open next year and a freshly hired core of teachers that brings the full-time faculty to 11, Christ the King will add a second class in the fall. The goal is to have four grades and a total of 600 students by the time Deon and his classmates become the first graduates in 2012.

"I think people get so excited about this because it's a partnership," Devron says. "The kids are working. The kids' families are paying. And corporations in the community are giving us jobs."

Families pay an average of $1,670 a year, Devron says. Donors and the corporate work-study program make up the rest.

Gallagher, which hired Cristo Rey students in its Chicago office, also was one of the first businesses on board in the suburbs, says Preston Kendall, vice president for corporate internship at Cristo Rey and Christ the King. The business pays $29,000 for each worker, and the school handles the taxes and paperwork while letting four kids split a full-time job.

"Gallagher has a lot of programs like this. It's doing a good thing, helping a child," says Donna Dailly, division resource manager for the firm, adding that she's watched Deon become more mature, professional, confident and outgoing during his time with them.

Deon says he's going to college to study computers. Pennants from Boston University, Harvard, Dayton and other universities line the hallways of the school. Devron takes Christ the King students on field trips to see campuses such as Loyola, Northern Illinois and Notre Dame. Letting kids work in places with college-educated professionals introduces them to a world beyond their communities.
Devron and Kendall hope to recruit more businesses from the suburbs, where they do a lot of fundraising.

One of Devron's buddies from their days at Palatine High School, Jeffrey S. Aronin helps the Catholic school raise money from the Jewish community.

"I'm helping Chris because I believe in the work he's doing," e-mails Aronin, who is Jewish and, as president and CEO of Lundbeck Inc., a pharmaceutical company based in Deefield, supports many civic and charitable organizations. Aronin remembers Devron as "remarkably smart and a good person."

"He was president of our senior class and well-liked,"Aronin says."He certainly could have done almost anything he wanted, including law or business as I chose, but I'm really impressed with the sacrifices he made to his faith and to our community."

While the school teaches religion, Latin and celebrates mass once a month, only 10 percent of the students are Catholic, Devron says. Posters on the wall celebrate traditional saints, but also feature Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko and 1968 Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the black-power salute.

The Palatine in which Devron grew up was an overwhelmingly white, middle-class neighborhood. He played tennis, acted in school plays and was such a good writer that he won a contest and was offered a journalism scholarship to Marquette.

"One thing my parents were really good at was introducing us to the world outside of Palatine," Devron says.

Jack and Pat Devron, often as part of their work with St. Thomas of Villanova church, involved Christopher, his sister, Kelly, and brother, Jeff, in volunteer projects to collect food and furniture, adopt a poor family or help the less fortunate.

"When we'd go to Chicago Stadium to see a Bulls game, my dad would always say there's a different life outside Palatine and needs outside Palatine," Devron remembers. "Growing up in Palatine was a very nurturing environment. But I felt there was this big gap in my education."

So instead of going to law school after college, Devron volunteered for a program teaching New York kids in a downtrodden neighborhood of the Bronx. He earned a master's degree in the history of philosophy from Loyola University, a divinity degree from Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and another master's degree with a concentration in African-American religious experience through Harvard Divinity School and the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.

He says he now "feels more at home" in the black churches of the cities. Having taken a vow of poverty, Devron says his reward comes seeing his school change lives.

"It's been my own salvation, too. I've grown so much from knowing these families and their kids," Devron says.

That's a rush he says he probably wouldn't have gotten if he'd been a lawyer instead of a priest doing the Jesuits' work.

"It's incredibly captivating that we could say we are going to new places where there are new needs and new communities that need us," Devron says. "Our vocation is to bring a sense of hope and light into darkness."

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School never should have opened. Wise and cautious people
with lots of experience should have explained to the school's founders, the Chicago Province Jesuits, that their audacious plan for opening a college preparatory high school for low income students in one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods simply wouldn't work. Detractors, who repeatedly pointed out that no school like this had ever succeeded, should've been able to convince them not to even bother trying.

Those naysayers, after all, were right. No school like this had succeeded. In fact, no school like this had even been attempted. The Jesuits, though, weren't swayed. They saw a need and believed this unconventional approach to education was their best shot at responding to the need. They were right. The school they started has changed the trajectory of the lives of countless students and sparked a resurgence in inner-city Catholic education in the United States. Their work is inspiring proof that a small group of people can change the world.

More than a Dream tells the incredible story of the school they created and how it has changed the lives of four of its students.

More than a Dream: How One's School Vision is Changing the World -Loyola Press

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