“Education is the only thing no one can take away from you.” – Mike Brennan
The Cristo Rey Approach to Education
The Cristo Rey Boston High School is part of a network of 32 schools across the country, serving students living at or below the poverty line and helping them get to college. Most kids join the school a grade or two behind in math and English, but each one of them will be taking an AP class by senior year. The statistics behind the Cristo Rey approach are compelling: 92% of Cristo Rey Boston students will attend college, and 60% will graduate within 6 years of beginning their undergraduate degrees (the national average for all students is 50%).
Started by the Jesuits, the Cristo Rey network of schools was born in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The Jesuits asked members of the community what they needed, and the answer came back loud and clear: a school. The founding coalition approached large companies to establish corporate work/study programs, which both provided funding for tuition and gave students invaluable experience in the business world. As a result, the out-of-pocket expense to a family is very modest, typically around $1,000.
In Boston, Cristo Rey partners with many of the major corporations to give students real life work experience: financial firms, major law firms, non-profits and a host of others are all proud supporters of the education of low income students in their city. It is important to note that the students are doing white collar work: “If they’re working for a construction company, they’re working with the COO or the architects,” Mike explained.
A Career in Education
Mike began his professional journey at a bank and then a mutual fund company, before realizing he much preferred education. Originally becoming a teacher so that he could coach ice hockey, he quickly fell in love with the teaching itself. Mike served at Boston College High School, his alma mater, as the Admissions Director for eight years, and then as a Vice Principal for five years, after spending time as an English teacher. He then transitioned to Cristo Rey, where he serves now. Mike described his current role as a sweet spot for him, as he has always had a passion for urban kids.
Focusing on Data
“I want to make us a data driven organization that knows what it’s doing and why it’s doing it,” Mike shared.
One advantage of being part of the broader Cristo Rey network is the availability of data on each school, and with it the ability to compare performance and identify areas of opportunity. Boston Cristo Rey tracks a variety of metrics, including:
- Job performance for students in their corporate work/study jobs – hard skills and soft skills
- Retention rates
- Academic success
- Characteristics of a successful student’s application
- Donor data – who gives, when, how much, how frequently, and why
- Admissions funnels – students applying after visiting a school fair, and how many visit, are accepted, and ultimately enroll
The school recently migrated to a hosted email solution, and has built a “student centered information system.” This system stores the relationships between each student and everyone invested in their success: teachers, an advisor, a work study account manager, and so forth. Typing a name into the system lets you send an email to everyone who is working with that student, in a single message. That communication is logged in a database under the student’s profile, allowing a teacher, for example, to see everything happening for a particular individual. The system also pulls in academic data, and offers dashboards for evaluation. The tool has been widely adopted after its introduction, and usage is now a cultural norm.
“The plural of anecdotes is not data,” Mike quipped.
For Mike, there are a number of proudest moments. “I’ve been blown away by the teaching faculty. Their commitment, their professionalism, the way they approach education. Everything they learned in grad school they took and applied in a setting, and are making it work in that setting… [The teachers] are so committed to the success of these kids.”
Mike recounted one story of how all desks at Cristo Rey are donated. One teacher had small desks in her classroom, which offered only enough space for a notepad. Then, a nearby school closed, and told Cristo Rey to take any supplies they might need. That classroom got a full set of new desks, and the teacher was so excited. “You have no idea how much this is going to change my teaching,” she told Mike.
“It’s an odd first world experience,” Mike finished. “We are leaving people behind. A desk can make a huge difference.”