Among the diocesan representatives to discuss a new beginning for St. Elizabeth at a meeting Sept. 7, from left: Gloria Espinoza, associate director of Human Resources; Rev. Alexander Castillo, priest secretary to the bishop; Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ; and Rev. Larry Young, interim superintendent of schools.
MICHELE JURICH/THE CATHOLIC VOICE
A new model of Catholic education for Oakland
Michael C. Barber, SJ
Since coming to Oakland, one of my priorities has been on how to adapt and promote Catholic education so it can flourish amid the challenges of this new millennium.
Some of our Catholic schools are full. Others are struggling to survive with dangerously low enrollment, and inability to raise the funds through tuition and donations to pay their teachers.
One of the schools that has been struggling for years is St. Elizabeth High School.
St. Elizabeth has a long and proud history. Founded in 1921 by the Franciscan friars and Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, the fruits of the work accomplished at St. Elizabeth have blessed and graced the Fruitvale neighborhood, and the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of people.
My goal is to keep that proud history alive and flourishing for the next century. I am very concerned about St. Elizabeth's long-term viability. My goal since becoming bishop has been to "Save St. Elizabeth's."
I believe we have now found a way to keep Catholic education flourishing in the Fruitvale neighborhood. A sustainable future for St. Elizabeth requires us to stop what we are currently doing, and "re-start" Catholic education there.
Since at least the early 1990s, St. Elizabeth has seen a decline in enrollment that mirrors a pattern across our country. This has resulted in a downward spiral that has proven impossible to stop.
In 1961 the school had 720 students enrolled. Today it has 143. With so few students, the school has not been able to make payroll. The diocese has been subsidizing St. Elizabeth's with $500,000 a year — for many years. We can no longer do this, as we simply do not have the funds.
Furthermore, today's students, to be fully prepared for college, need more than just the basics. They need a challenging and wide-ranging set of coursework, enrichment classes and programs. They need up-to-date computers and other equipment. It has become increasingly challenging to provide a quality education that serves our students well.
It is simply not possible to provide a high-quality, college preparatory education in a school with good, but so few, students. This is not my opinion, but based on research and analysis.
A little over a year ago, I commissioned a group to study the feasibility of founding a Cristo Rey High School in the Oakland diocese. Known as "education that works," these innovative, Catholic, college prep high schools are exclusively for urban families.
Cristo Rey is unique: Its corporate work-study model provides students with professional work experiences which also offset the cost of tuition.
What does that mean? The students at a Cristo Rey school go to school, with extended class hours, for four days a week. On the fifth day, they work in a business or company office. The money they earn by working goes directly to offset their tuition. Graduates of these schools are entering and completing college at twice the rate of inner-city, traditional high school graduates. There are already 32 schools operating successfully in the United States, including Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco and Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit in San Jose.
The feasibility committee was given the mandate of answering four questions: Is there 1) the necessary community support? 2) sufficient financial support? 3) adequate corporate sponsorship for student employment? and 4) a religious order interested in partnering?
There is more work to be done, but we have found significant community support. Thus far we have pledges of $1.5 million toward the $2.5 million needed to launch. With a dozen companies willing to offer jobs, we have about half of the corporate positions needed for the students. And the Brothers of the Christian Schools, who have a long and proud history in Catholic education, are now affiliated with us.
We have progressed to the point where we can decide where our own Cristo Rey school should be. Based on our commitment to the St. Elizabeth community, the solid physical condition of the St. Elizabeth buildings and the analysis of the committee, I have decided St. Elizabeth High School is the best fit for a future Cristo Rey high school.
The Cristo Rey school is targeted to open in the summer of 2018 with freshmen only. A "break year" between the current student population and the beginning of the Cristo Rey school, recommended by the Cristo Rey Network, allows for a successful transition. There will be no classes at St. Elizabeth High School for the 2017-18 school year.
Our first priority is helping students in the three transitioning classes (classes of '18, '19 and '20) move to a new school for the 2017-2018 school year. I understand the challenge this is.
The Diocese of Oakland, St. Elizabeth High School and many of our other Catholic high schools — Bishop O'Dowd, Holy Names, St. Joseph Notre Dame, St. Mary's College High, Moreau Catholic and Salesian College Prep — have developed a plan so that all current St. Elizabeth students can enroll in one of the their schools beginning in the school year 2017-2018. They have agreed to the same admission process, tuition expectations and student support systems. De La Salle and Carondelet have expressed support, but realize they may be too far away to be feasible alternatives.
Together, we will ensure that every current St. Elizabeth student continues to receive a quality, college preparatory, faith-filled education. I hope that you will join the St. Elizabeth parents, administration and transition team, the receiving Catholic high schools and the diocese in supporting these students as they move through this, toward graduation and preparing for their life's work.
The Cristo Rey model of secondary education meets the needs of Catholic families today. It is a viable, sustainable opportunity for families who cannot afford a tuition-only school, to provide their children with a challenging, quality, Catholic education.
The Cristo Rey model can allow us to ensure that St. Elizabeth serves as an anchor in the community well into the next century. Our future graduates will have the corporate experience and rigorous academics to succeed. It is truly "education that works."
To make this dream a reality I need your help. We need companies to offer the jobs where we can place Cristo Rey students. We also welcome your financial support, so we can raise the necessary seed money to open the new school.
I am excited about the future of Catholic education in our diocese. I hope you join me in that excitement, especially in regards to establishing a new Cristo Rey high school in the Fruitvale area of Oakland. If you'd like to help us, please contact our transition team at:
firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-866-2254.
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