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Blog / Putting Education to Work: An Interview with Fr. John Foley, Founder of Cristo Rey

Putting Education to Work: An Interview with Fr. John Foley, Founder of Cristo Rey

Fr. Foley video interview on Cristo ReyThe story behind Cristo Rey (@CristoRey), a unique education model, can be read in Putting Education to Work: How Cristo Rey High Schools Are Transforming Urban Education by Megan Sweas (HarperOne—an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014).

Bible Gateway interviewed the founder, chair emeritus, and chief mission officer of Cristo Rey, Fr. John O. Foley, S.J. about the national movement.

Translate Cristo Rey for us and tell why you chose that name for your school?Click to buy your copy of Putting Education to Work by Megan Sweas in the Bible Gateway Store

Fr. Foley: Cristo Rey means Christ the King. I remember being in a meeting with a group of Jesuits who were organizing the school for the Pilsen neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. When we asked ourselves what we were going to call it, someone said Cristo Rey. I remember thinking at the time that I really liked the suggestion because, first of all, it’s Spanish and our school was going to be bi-lingual and, secondly, because the image of Christ the King was very strong and meaningful for St. Ignatius Loyola.

An explanation that’s sometimes given is that we named it Cristo Rey because those are alleged to be the final words of Miguel Pro, the Jesuit martyred in Mexico in 1927. That explanation is apocryphal. In recent years a book came out in English about the life and death of Pro and it made no mention of his dying with those words on his lips. I wrote the author a letter asking him why he had omitted such an important detail. He answered saying that, although that is frequently heard, there’s absolutely no historical evidence to substantiate that claim. Bottom line: I think our schools are called Cristo Rey simply because it was meant to be.

What social needs led you to begin Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago in 1996?

Fr. Foley: “Get up and go into the city, where you will be told what you must do.” Acts 9:6

This is a foundational text for the work of the Cristo Rey movement. It’s part of the story of what happened to St. Paul. Paul is the one who had his whole world in perfect order; he was a professional in what he did. He offered to personally go and collect all those first Christians who were in Damascus. With that he fell from his horse, totally changed his way of thinking, and became vulnerable enough to let the Lord work through him. That’s the glory of St. Paul, and that’s the glory of the work of the Cristo Rey Network. Back in 1993, the Jesuits walked the streets of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood asking residents how they can best respond to the considerable underserved needs of the Mexican and Latino immigrants pouring into the community. With a particular challenge of sustaining Catholic education for this growing neighborhood, the working class families responses clustered around one idea—parents wanted a college preparatory high school that would educate their children for a better future. Cristo Rey Jesuit High School opened in August 1996.

Explain how the Bible and biblical values are emphasized in the Cristo Rey program. How do these taught values contribute to the character development of the students?

Fr. Foley: Every Cristo Rey school is rooted in Catholic faith and values, and reflects the charism of the 30+ different sponsoring religious organizations of their schools. While 40% of Cristo Rey students are not Catholic, our schools educate every student in the faith through four years of Religious Studies in the classroom. Our schools also live out the Bible and Catholic social teachings through celebrating Mass, facilitating retreats, participating in community service, and more.

In Genesis, God not only creates man but also puts him to work. When creating the first Cristo Rey school, we hired a consultant to help us figure out how we were going to financially sustain the school because families could not afford tuition. He came up with the idea that students could have a job. This idea is now the “secret sauce” and innovation of the Cristo Rey education model. All students work one day each week to earn the majority cost of their education. We had no idea of the impact the work experience was going to have on their character development. When students find themselves holding down a job in an adult working environment, they’re reinforced with the life-long learning behaviors, persistence, and “grit” to succeed. Students feel extraordinarily good about themselves; life fills with hope and they see the relevance for going to school.

The Cristo Rey education experience, both in and out of the classroom, develops students to be academically, morally, and spiritually prepared to serve as engaged adults in their communities.

Describe Cristo Rey’s success and how it’s become a national movement.

Fr. Foley: By 2001, Cristo Rey’s education model became known to educators and community leaders throughout the country. Groups in Portland, Denver, and Los Angeles approached us about how they might replicate the school in their own inner-cities to serve undeserved youth. In response, we founded the Cristo Rey Network national office and schools opened in Portland (2001), Los Angeles (2002), and Denver (2003). Seed investors, including venture philanthropists B.J. and Bebe Cassin, provided $28 million of funding to promote the replication of the Cristo Rey. This fall, we have 28 Cristo Rey schools nationwide educating 9,000 low-income students. Each year, every student is accepted into college and more than 90% enroll into postsecondary education.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Fr. Foley: We always say about the Cristo Rey model that it’s God’s work. I am absolutely convinced that that is true. We say things like “just stay out of the way” and “let God work” so that we can continue to serve the young people entrusted to us. Our greatest proof that God is at work is that we repeatedly see the total is more than the sum of the parts. What we’re doing (educating 9,000 young men and women) is so infinitely more than we ever bargained for! I keep repeating that when we began we weren’t even sure if the model was going to work. To our tremendous satisfaction and contentment, it did and it still does.

Bio: A Chicago native, Fr. Foley entered the Society of Jesus in 1954. He earned a BA in Latin from Xavier University in Cincinnati and holds an MA in Sociology and a M.Ed. from Loyola University in Chicago. From 1961 to 1995 he served the Jesuit missions in Peru, working primarily in education. He served as President of two of Peru’s Jesuit K-12 schools.

He returned to Chicago in 1995 to collaborate in establishing Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. He was named President of the school in 1996 and served for eight years. During his tenure, he oversaw the effort to establish the school, hiring of all personnel, student recruitment, and the construction of 150,000 square feet of classroom and recreation space. Father Foley raised more than $26 million during this eight-year term and left Cristo Rey Jesuit High School with a $2 million endowment. More importantly, he established the tradition and spirit of a school that has become a national model. In January of 2005, he assumed the presidency of the Cristo Rey Network of which he is presently Chair Emeritus. In this role he represents Cristo Rey at national and international speaking engagements, ensures quality of schools through site visits, and assists in the implementation of the Cristo Rey Network School Growth Plan.

For his efforts in pioneering a new model to prepare disadvantaged students for success in college and beyond, Fr. Foley has been profiled in national media outlets as well as the recipient of numerous awards. These include seven Honorary Doctorates, the National Catholic Education Association Seton Award, and the Presidential Citizens Medal from President George W. Bush.

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