Catholic Prep Chain Helps Detroit's Minority Students Go On To College

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Amid all the national discussion about helping minority students succeed in college, a chain of private Catholic high schools is being held up as a model. Detroit Cristo Rey opened in 2008.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. Good Morning. The Supreme Court's recent decision limiting the use of affirmative action in college admissions has generated a lot of talk about other ways to give minority students better access to higher education. One chain of Catholic high schools across the country has been getting remarkable results in this area. Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra visited one of their Detroit area schools to find out how they're doing it.

JENNIFER GUERRA, BYLINE: Four days a week, Idalis Longoria does what pretty much all high school juniors do. She goes to school, takes notes in class, hangs out in the cafeteria with her friends - but on the fifth day of the week - well that's when Longoria trades in her Catholic school uniform for a pair of light blue scrubs.

IDALIS LONGORIA: Sharyl, 18 was asking about umbilical cord. She had some questions about it.

GUERRA: Today, she's making her way around the birthing floor for her rounds at St. Mary's Hospital near Detroit.

LONGORIA: Knock, knock. Do you need anything? You're good? You sure?

GUERRA: It may not sound like it, but this is her homework.

LONGORIA: We clean the monitors and the baby warmers. And we stock them - clean off the breast pumps, the baby cribs.

GUERRA: See, Longoria, who is 17 years old, goes to Cristo Rey. It's a college prep Catholic high school in Detroit. There are 26 of these schools across the country. The schools are specifically for low-income kids - the vast majority of whom are either Hispanic like Longoria or black. One day a week, beginning as freshmen, the students go to work - not for McDonald's or a corner gas station. Instead, the students work for a law firm, say, or the IT department at Chrysler - jobs that pay well and require a college degree. The companies, in turn, agree to pay most of the students' tuition.

DEBBIE AINSWORTH: That first year, we said we'll try it, and we weren't real hopeful that this with an environment that for young girls like that.

GUERRA: Debbie Ainsworth directs the Birthing Center here at St. Mary's Hospital. She says in the beginning, she was skeptical that a bunch of high school students would be able to handle a real-life hospital setting. But now, Ainsworth is a total convert.

AINSWORTH: They're at the point, now, where they're so savvy. When they se we're having an emergency C-section, they grab part of the bed to rush the patient back. They're in the O.R. with us. They're running to the lab to pick up blood if we need it.

GUERRA: Detroit Cristo Rey opened in 2008, and since then, every single senior at the school has been accepted to college. The whole Cristo Rey network has a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Still, for every lucky kid who gets into a Cristo Rey school, there are tens of thousands who don't. Some Cristo Rey schools are so popular, only about a third of the kids that apply get in.

MIKE KHOURY: My name is Mike Khoury. And I'm the president of Detroit Cristo Rey High School.

GUERRA: Since Detroit Cristo Rey is relatively new, Mike Khoury says, they pretty much take all comers at this point - though, there is some cherry picking. Any student who enters ninth grade has to be able to read at a seventh grade reading level, no lower. So getting the students up to grade level is Khoury's first priority. His second priority is to pair up the students with professional to show the kids there's life beyond the streets of Detroit.

KHOURY: I kind of consider the jobs program our kids' country club. So while their parents might belong to the country club where they can get referrals and recommendations to kind of open the doors for their children, our students have their job partners. They're doing that exact same thing for them.

GUERRA: The employers hire the students for summer jobs, counsel them about which colleges to apply to even write up recommendations to go along with their college applications. Richard Kahlenberg is with the Century Foundation, and he writes about alternatives to affirmative action. He says all too often selective colleges diversify their student body by picking the low hanging fruit -fairly wealthy students of color.

RICHARD KAHLENBERG: The existing programs haven't really reached disadvantaged minority students. Programs like Cristo Rey go right to the source of the inequality itself and get at the students who are most deserving of a leg up in our society.

LONGORIA: It has definitely been an amazing experience. I realize that God put me here. This is what I want to be for the rest of my life.

GUERRA: Idalis Longoria knows she's one of the lucky ones. The 17-year-old says her life has changed a lot. Before she enrolled at Cristo Rey and started to work at the hospital, she says college was sort of this abstract idea, something she only half thought about.

LONGORIA: But then I got here and I realized how important it is and how if I want to be as successful as ,you know, the people I work with here, then it's absolutely mandatory. I have to do good and I have to get into a good college.

GUERRA: Her top choice, the University of Michigan. If she gets in, she'll be the first in her family to go to college and, hopefully, graduate. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Guerra.

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