A big disconnect in high school is, ‘What are we learning this for?’” says Michael Odiotti, Principal of St. Martin de Porres High School. “Here, they’re learning chemistry and working at Abbott. They see chemists working. Combining the world of work and the world of school has a lot of power.”
The students at St. Martin de Porres in Waukegan are currently paying about 70 percent of their own tuition by working for local companies and institutions in a work-study capacity. Every student that enrolls in the school gets assigned to a four-person team which fills the position of one employee at an area company for the semester. Every week, each student in the team attends classes four days, works the job one day, and each week they alternate which team member works the Friday shift at their sponsoring company.
The salary goes toward the tuition of the four students filling the position, paying for the majority of the private, college preparatory level education offered by St. Martin de Porres. The positions they fill cover a variety of fields from working with companies like Crate & Barrel and Grainger to A Safe Place and Boys & Girls Club of Lake County.
The Corporate Work Study Program model was originally conceived by the Cristo Rey Network, a Catholic group devoted to giving kids in low-income communities a chance at a quality education regardless of their family’s ability to pay for it. The original proving ground was Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in the Pilsen community on the South Side of Chicago, and it was a huge success.
Within a few years, cities across the country were asking to get a school in the network. The innovative model caught the attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided Cristo Rey with a grant to build more schools that used the Corporate Work Study Program. There are now 24 schools in the network and St. Martin de Porres in Waukegan is consistently one of their top three performers academically; quite a success for the school with the third lowest family per capita income on their network, only finishing ahead of Birmingham, Alabama, and Detroit, Michigan.
The origins of St. Martin de Porres in particular, however, come straight out of Lake Forest. The team that proposed Waukegan as a location for a Cristo Rey school and took the feasibility study upon themselves were from the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest, and the original board members were almost exclusively from Lake Forest and Lake Bluff. Our community is still largely responsible for connecting area companies with their Corporate Work Study Program. In fact, St. Martin de Porres students fill positions for the Village of Lake Bluff and Lake Forest Open Lands.
“It can be very cost-effective for the companies,” says Keleigh Casper, Communications Director at St. Martin de Porres. “[The kids] have stable transportation for administrative roles. Some companies had a lot of turnover in these positions before hiring one of our teams. It’s a great work solution, but once the kids get in there, a lot of the companies say, ‘We can’t imagine not having them here.’ It’s fun. A little bit of youthful energy in the office, watching them learn and grow.” Lake Forest and Lake Bluff have also been instrumental in helping them round up the remainder of their operating budget. “A lot of people like the idea because you’re not just throwing money at a charity,” Keleigh adds. “The students work and earn 70 percent of their tuition, so people are happy to fill that 30 percent gap.” The Cristo Rey Network has a saying: “It’s not a handout; it’s a leg up.”
“We’re showing that it’s not that the kids aren’t capable, it’s that the current system is failing them,” says Preston Kendall, President of St. Martin de Porres. If you don’t have income, you don’t have options. You don’t have access to companies, you don’t live on a block where you’re going to meet lawyers and doctors and engineers who went to college. It’s a very isolating existence when you don’t have a lot of money. We’re not saying that getting a job that doesn’t require a college degree is bad. We just want to carve out a niche for the kids that really want the options that come with a college degree, because right now they don’t have that option.”
The current St. Martin de Porres campus is making a difference for 240 students, and next year it will almost be 300, but that puts them at capacity. The Cristo Rey model across the network shows that an individual school gets much more sustainable when they reach 500 students, but in order to make that goal, they’re going to need more donors to help them get a new campus and a little more visibility.
“If we can get up to 500 students, we send a very strong message that things aren’t hopeless and that there’s talent being wasted up here,” says Preston. “We know that the published dropout rate in North Chicago is that less than half of the kids who start high school ever get a high school diploma, let alone go to college. In Waukegan, they say that 60 percent of those who start, finish. [At St. Martin de Porres] over 97 percent of our kids are graduating, and when we take the average over the last three years, 100 percent have gotten into college.”
For more information on St. Martin de Porres, visit them online at smdpwaukegan.org, or call 847-244-6895.
—Words by Jake Jarvi