What will you be?

What will you be?

By David McKay Wilson

Changes: Eileen O'Kane '01 teaches history. Photo by Charles Barry
San Francisco’s Immaculate Conception Academy has found a work-study program that gives low-income students what they need. Starting with a bigger view of the world.

Less than three years after her high school joined the Cristo Rey Network, history teacher Eileen O’Kane ’01 sees changes in the way her students at Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco approach the world. The network, a promising new paradigm for urban Catholic education, requires students to work one day a week in a local enterprise, with their earnings used to cover part of their tuition.

“My students are more confident and articulate,” says O’Kane, in her sixth year at ICA. “They are standing a little taller. When I ask them about their futures, I hear more ambitious plans. Now they talk about being architects, bankers, or doctors. And they are driven, very driven.”

"Being here gives me something to look forward to. It gives me something tangible to provide motivation." —Ashley Lopez

The all-girls school, which has served immigrants in San Francisco's Mission district since 1883, refocused its program in 2009 when it joined the Cristo Rey Network. At the time, the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, who founded the school to educate German immigrants, worried about how to continue serving low-income students when annual ICA tuition had reached $10,000. The solution they found: the Cristo Rey model, established in the mid-1990s by Jesuit educators looking to develop a school for low-income Latinos in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The model worked, and by 2001, its founder, John Foley, S.J., created the Cristo Rey Network to raise money and provide expertise to replicate the Chicago experience across the nation. By 2010, he’d raised $26 million from major foundations. An additional 23 Cristo Rey schools have opened in the past decade, with six more in development.

The work-study experience is one part of a rigorous curriculum that prepares low-income students for college. The results are impressive: 100 percent of ICA’s 2011 graduates—who come from families earning less than $22,500 a year—were accepted to college.
 

An important tradition

The work-study program also provides substantial financial support for cash-strapped Catholic schools. Each student works as part of a four-student team, sharing a job in a local company. In 2011-12, the 6,900 students attending Cristo Rey schools earned $37 million to pay for their education.

“Catholic education has done so much for so many waves of immigrants,” says Stephen Lanctot ’73, a San Francisco attorney who chairs ICA’s board of directors. “This allows that tradition to continue.”

Lanctot heads up a 20-member ICA board that includes fellow Santa Clara alumni Mary Frances Callan ’65, M.A. '66;  Frank Heffernan Jr. ’52; Matthew Noonan’71; and Rich Worner ’72. Joining O’Kane on ICA’s staff are Elizabeth Garvin ’06, ICA’s assistant director of development, and, most recently, Julie Arcaro ’10, who teaches religious studies.
 

A world so much larger

I first visited ICA early one Friday in November 2010. Ninth-graders arrived at school before dawn, dressed in ICA sweater vests, black slacks, and solid-colored shirts. Teachers call the teenage students “ladies” and expect them to behave professionally. The girls shake hands firmly and look me in the eye. They are gracious, and they talk about their goals and aspirations. Before they head off to job sites, they collect a work sheet for their employer; they bring it back each day with comments and performance ratings. Before they go, Courtney Philbin, assistant director of work-study, shakes each student’s hand—and makes sure that they are properly attired, wearing earrings no larger than a quarter, and that they have removed any colored nail polish.

Philbin suggests topics in the news that the girls might discuss that day with their co-workers: the sentencing of a police officer who shot an unarmed man in Oakland; the fate of San Francisco Giants star Edgar Renteria; and California's new governor.

The students are driven by volunteers or escorted via public transit to an array of work sites: law firms, hospitals, universities, nonprofit organizations. They mostly perform entry-level clerical work—answering the phone, filing papers, making copies, scanning documents. Employers report that ICA students have far better attendance and are more enthusiastic about their jobs than the adult workers who held the positions previously.

Study, work: ICA students Diana Guardado and Estefania Lopez with school President Sister Diane Aruda, O.P., and Elizabeth Garvin '06Photo by Charles Barry

Later that morning, at the San Francisco office of the international law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, 14-year-old Ashley Lopez takes a break from work on the 29th floor to talk with me. The offices are at 1 Embarcadero Center, and we meet in an all-glass conference room with a marble table and a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay.

Lopez calls herself “hardworking and nerdy.” She likes the academic challenge at ICA, its highly structured program, and her disciplined classmates. At the law firm, she’s treated like an adult, and says her world has grown much larger.

“Being here gives me something to look forward to,” says Lopez. “It gives me something tangible to provide motivation.”

Lopez shares her job with three other ICA students. The law firm pays the school $29,000 a year for the four-member work team. Student earnings have slashed ICA tuition to $4,000, and it will drop to $2,900 for the 2012-13 school year. About 75 percent of ICA freshmen this year received financial aid, with some paying as little as $50 a month.

And this past year, Lopez worked at Big Four accounting firm KPMG.
 

“See these young ladies succeed.”

Since 2009, Elizabeth Garvin has helped raise money for financial aid and to support the transition to the Cristo Rey Network as the ICA staff develops jobs in the San Francisco business world. She first learned of Cristo Rey when she was home in Brooklyn back in 1996—long before she enrolled in college, let alone thought of working in education. Fr. John Foley is her grandmother’s cousin; he came to visit and told of his new model for education in Chicago.

After graduating from Santa Clara, Garvin joined Franklin Templeton and began working on the municipal bond trading desk in San Mateo. But after three years of wheeling and dealing in the financial world, she decided she’d rather use her business skills to help build ICA’s program.

As part of recent efforts, she helped run ICA’s fourth annual gala in the fall of 2011, raising about $200,000—more than doubling the proceeds from the 2009 event. “Lots of new friends have learned about us and are inspired by what the Network is doing,” she says. “They want to see these young ladies succeed.”

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