Fairfield Now - Spring 2007
Bridging Two Worlds
By Alejandra Navarro
Manhattan - home to some of the most powerful and prestigious companies in the world - is separated from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by one subway stop on the J train. But for many of the young people in this neighborhood, the thought of working for these companies or being part of this corporate culture is so distant the stops might as well be on opposite sides of the globe.
|Rev. Jim O'Shea, C.P.,'83 (above) is nearly set - thanks to the advocacy of people like Lucy Collett '84 and Jim Welsh '83 (below) - to open a Cristo Rey High School in Brooklyn, creating for traditionally underserved students a bridge to the corporate world.|
"For many, many reasons, there are more obstacles in their lives than there are opportunities," explains the Rev. Jim O'Shea, C.P.'83, who has worked in Brooklyn for more than a decade. He has a plan that will put some of these young people to work in professional corporate offices while they're still in high school.
Fr. O'Shea is the study coordinator for a proposed Cristo Rey college-prep high school in Brooklyn. The Cristo Rey model, first begun by Jesuits in Chicago 11 years ago, offers a challenging curriculum and a longer school day, and boasts a work-study program that makes the private Catholic school affordable to low-income families. A team of students - each student working one day a week - shares an entry-level position. The salary from the position pays for more than 70 percent of the tuition.
"Kids are intrigued with this idea of working - and getting out of the neighborhood," says Fr. O'Shea, who has interviewed hundreds of students in preparation for the school. "It's a Catholic school that can provide them with a value-based approach to life and it puts them in a different environment; a place they can envision being a part of one day. The kids want a safe place to go to school. Parents see it as a place of hope."
The Cristo Rey schools have proven to be effective, even in neighborhoods where drop-out rates are high and college-going rates are low. In 2006, 99 percent of the schools' 217 graduates were accepted into colleges, and 95 percent enrolled. The Cristo Rey Network, consisting of 12 schools and seven additional schools currently under development, has been featured on 60 Minutes and in Newsweek, and in November received a $6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Brooklyn campus is scheduled to open in September 2008, once it receives final approval from the Network. It will serve the neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Bushwick, where Fr. O'Shea has worked closely with families as an advocate for the preservation of affordable housing through the Churches United Corp. in north Brooklyn. Fr. O'Shea says the school is coming together because of the support it has received from the community and corporate partners in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the team of volunteers who have connected the two. Fellow Fairfield alumni Lucy Collett '84 and Jim Welsh '83 are part of that team.
The jobs committee, chaired by Collett, who is also on the school's steering committee, has received commitments for all 25 positions needed for the first class of 120 students. Of course, the committee's work will continue, as the school will need 25 job commitments for each additional class of students.
Some people she approaches ask what a 14-year-old can do for a corporation, to which Collett replies, "Surprisingly, they can do most entry-level jobs and do them in a professional and enthusiastic manner." All students participate in a boot camp on corporate etiquette.
Collett, a managing director at Standard & Poor in Manhattan, met many young people from Brooklyn through Fr. O'Shea's "Skills Academy," where she taught a segment on the legal system with Noreen (Dever) Arralde '84. "The travel to and from Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and working with the kids really brought home to me the dire need in this area," says Collett. "It was very rewarding to see the changes in the kids that came from the exposure to new things and new people. It really seemed to open their hearts and minds to different possibilities for the future."
That is the hope a Cristo Rey school holds for young people who have limited educational options.
Welsh, a classmate of Fr. O'Shea's who serves on the jobs committee, was immediately impressed by the Cristo Rey model, as were many of the companies he has approached about providing jobs for the students. Welsh, a bond broker at Murphy and Durieu in Manhattan, is pleased to be a part of a school that will benefit so many families. "It was a Fairfield connection that created this opportunity for me to give back," he says. "We take for granted the idea that someone is going to get a decent education, because that's what we received. For kids in parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, that's not always the case."
With the help of folks like Welsh, Collett, and Fr. O'Shea, a group of young people from Brooklyn could be jumping on a Manhattan-bound train and into a professional world they may one day join. "It's not a perfect world," says Fr. O'Shea, who once considered a career in business as a finance major, "but it's a world where they can make some money and raise a family."