Father Jon Chalmers knows his students possess competing histories and futures.
At Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School in Ensley, the business model is based on students working one day a week at a company in the Birmingham area, which helps pay their tuition. This was first put into action in 1996 in Chicago and has grown to 35 schools across the country.
“Cristo Rey itself is actually a 20-year-old model of Catholic education for serving low-income, urban communities,” Chalmers said. “The model is complex; there really isn’t anything like it. It’s a combination of academic college-prep education and experience in a corporate work study program, where each one of our students shares in an entry-level part-time job at a local institution or corporation.”
This system works. Chalmers spoke of success stories of high school students entering college and graduating to secure sustainable employment. Many times, they are the first in their families to attend college.
“That experience seems to be the secret sauce providing them with a transformational proficiency, for them and hopefully for the community as well,” Chalmers said.
Holy Family Cristo Rey is fascinating place to visit. The relationship between the faculty and students is based on respect, as well as caring and thoughtful compassion.
“Teaching at Holy Family Cristo Rey means having the opportunity to change lives,” teacher Elaina Perrymon said. “One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon, which can be used to change the world.’
“My goal is to supply students with the tools needed to navigate a culturally diverse, competitive and digital world. Equally important is instilling the positive moral and ethical standards needed to be successful college graduates,” Perrymon said. “In math class, my students are competitors, supporters, creators, analyzers, illustrators, teachers and learners.”
Add weekly job experience to this superb education and you have a winner.
Not only the teachers and staff love Holy Family Cristo Rey; the students do as well.
“My experience at Holy Family, I can’t even describe it. We are like a big family and when I graduate I’ll be excited, but also upset because I love it here,” student Angel Thomas said. “I love my job. I work at Regions Bank downtown. Last week I actually got promoted and moved to a new floor, so that’s exciting.”
Chalmers ranks education as one of the highest ideals. He considers education the pre-eminent challenge of his students’ lives, and the means by which they will go on to transform themselves and their community.
“I was raised by my maternal grandfather, who was raised in Ensley. His father had come to Ensley as a 16-year-old bricklayer in 1906. … In 1906, at the beginning of the industrial revolution in Birmingham, people came from other countries to take jobs here, even though there were people here that could have taken those jobs,” Chalmers said. “Looking forward at the horizons of workforce development and economic opportunity, we really want to make sure this school helps students who are from here so they can take advantage of the opportunities that come to them.”
Classes let out and the hallway fills with students in uniforms, grabbing their books from their lockers and laughing and chatting. The scene doesn’t look too different from any other school, though ahead of these students lies a future full of possibility and bright prospects to transform a city with a history of limited opportunities.
Chalmers and his faculty are working to make sure that history is rewritten, and their students’ future is bright.
For information about the school and to donate, visit http://www.hfcristorey.org.
Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at [email protected]