A mere three days after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of tax credits for donations to scholarship-granting organizations, I toured a school in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis that would be a great investment of scholarship dollars.
Cristo Rey Twin Cities is a relatively young high school; this school year brings the school’s first senior class. Yet it’s doing well academically: So far, 80 percent of seniors have been accepted to colleges such as Augsburg, Georgetown, St. Thomas, and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, statewide, 70 percent of graduating students statewide enroll in an institution of higher education the fall following a Spring/early Summer graduation.
What’s remarkable is that Cristo Rey’s students come from segments of the population that are historically underrepresented among college students. For one thing, there’s an income ceiling on new students. (So much for the stereotype of private schools as havens for the wealthy .) About two-thirds of the students are Latino. Most of the rest are black, while Somali, Hmong, and white making up the rest. While most students are self-identified Catholics, students need not identify as Catholic or even any form of Christian; indeed, about 10 students are Muslim.
The high rate of college acceptance isn’t accidental, since the school is part of a network of urban schools run by Jesuits. Students must take a college-prep program: four years of science, four years of math, and so forth. But what’s unusual is that they must also participate in a work-study program during school hours. Four students share one entry-level job, so a student may work, say, every Tuesday, and then every fourth Friday.
The school offers some extensive preparation for this part of the educational experience. Students begin the school year with a two-year orientation in soft skills, including the Dale Carnegie method. Then they are sent out to offices around the Twin Cities. Students may work at banks (Wells Fargo), consumer-goods companies (General Mills), hospital systems (Allina), law firms (Robins, Kaplan), the headquarters of major retailers (Best Buy) and software companies (Lawson), in addition to non-profits. Their tasks range from what you might expect (making photocopies) to things you might not, including updating web pages and resolving customer disputes.
Meg Brudney is the executive director of the school’s “Hire4Ed” project, which recruits employers and then oversees the students. The companies typically participate, Brudney says, not because they have a specific task that needs to be done, but because they believe in the school’s mission. She adds, however, that companies do find ways to have the students perform valuable work. So it’s not “dig a hole and then fill it back up” labor for the sake of work experience. That’s a good thing, too, since companies pay the school, which serves as the employer of record, about $28,000 per year for each job filled by Cristo Rey students. When the school surveys the companies, they find near-universal satisfaction rates on measures such as students’ attitude and overall job performance. To paraphase Brudney, the work experience is not only good for the students, it’s good for employers.
The school develops students who enter college with work skills and work experience. The Hire4Ed component does offer some substantial return to both the students and the school. Families–who, by design, are drawn from the low-income stratra–do pay something, but far from the bulk of the expenses, which are met by Hire4Ed and the school’s fundraising efforts.
Now imagine for a minute that Minnesota has a law like Arizona. You donate $1,000 to a scholarship-granting organization, and get a tax credit of the same amount. Somewhere in the Twin Cities, a kid sees the opportunity at Cristo Rey and wants to attend. She applies to the school. She also also applies to the scholarship organization, which takes money from you and a few other people, and then offers it to the student, who is then able to supplement her Hire4Ed wages with some scholarship money.
If your primary concern is to help children learn, what’s not to like?