In 1996, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School opened its doors in Chicago's predominantly Latino Pilsen neighborhood. To say Pilsen in the 90s was a tough neighborhood is an understatement; but where others saw peril, Father John P. Foley -- a grandfatherly, bespectacled, jovial Jesuit with a daring vision and willpower to match -- saw potential.

He envisioned a new kind of Catholic school that would provide excellent academics to youth whose families could not afford it and prepare them for both college and a career. Not only would Cristo Rey Jesuit students be challenged by a rigorous academic environment; they'd also participate in a work-study program putting them behind desks at some of Chicago's most elite Fortune 500 corporations.

The model has spread coast to coast through the now 38 Cristo Rey Network schools. They enroll 13,000 students in 24 states and boast 26,000 alumni. While Father Foley retired in January 2022, he is anything but inactive.

"Five minutes before our call, he was texting me with some ideas he had," Cristo Rey Network president and CEO Kelby Woodard told OSV News. "So he's very much engaged."

Father Foley aimed high with students for whom others had only low expectations. Most Cristo Rey students come from families whose average household income is $38,000 for a family of four. Ninety-eight percent identify as people of color.

"Our ultimate goal is transformative change," said Woodard. "The credo Father Foley helped write for us … it's a very audacious goal. And that's what attracts people to it."

Student success is likewise magnetic. Cristo Rey graduates complete college at more than twice the rate of the total U.S. low-income population.

Through the network's Corporate Work Study Program, graduates also are prepared for future employment in a way few of their peers experience.

One day a week and one Friday a month -- for seven hours, from freshman to senior year -- Cristo Rey students hold a job. There are no "missed classes," because -- with both a longer school year and longer school day -- instruction is designed around a four-day per week academic program.

Recounting the story of one student whose work assignment placed her at Georgia Power, Woodard recalled that "she really kind of fell in love with their mission. She got into Notre Dame; is an electrical engineering major; and used that knowledge both in high school and now in getting a degree at Notre Dame."

When the young scholar, originally from Gambia, visited her family members there one summer, she saw the impact on her family and others from "all these rolling blackouts" the country was experiencing. Woodward said the student now plans to return to Gambia after graduating from the University of Notre Dame "and resolve that problem in her country."

"It's not just about the academics and academic rigor, it's also about the connections our students are making," Woodard said. "Our families don't have those kinds of connections. So these kids are building their own connections."

Antonio Ortiz, who followed in Father Foley's steps as president of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, a role he's held for 23 years, also knows how vital those connections can be for young people without many options.

"We were the first Catholic school to open in the city of Chicago in over 30 years," Ortiz told OSV News. "The trend in Detroit, the trend in Cleveland, the trend in major cities was Catholic schools were moving to the suburbs and they were leaving the city center."

It's a trajectory that unfortunately hasn't slowed. As authors Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett report in "Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools' Importance in Urban America," in the past two decades in the United States, more than 1,600 Catholic elementary and secondary schools have closed.

Despite those numbers, Cristo Rey nonetheless stands in the gap.

"We don't take credit for it," said Ortiz, "but we'd like to believe we were part of that trend, where we said, 'Catholic schools have a major role in the center city for urban youth.' And quite frankly, we might even be the most effective model in that environment."

Ortiz explained that at least part of that effectiveness stems from basic respect for students and parents.

"When you meet them where they're at -- whether that's culturally; language-wise; involving and inviting parents into the process -- then you're able to provide that high quality experience," he said.

While the now-trendy and gentrifying Pilsen neighborhood has changed outside the walls of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, the school still emphasizes the heritage of its student population.

"We're a dual-language school. You take four years of Spanish here -- we celebrate that language; that's reflective of our neighborhood," Ortiz commented. "We are trying to reflect the needs of the local community. And I think that's what all 38 Cristo Rey schools do -- which is, they reflect the needs of the local community," he added.

"This is such a young model. Our graduates are so young," Ortiz stressed. "But that multitude effect -- it's going to be really exciting when they begin moving into leadership positions. And they already are."

On the west coast, Jesse Jovel, vice president of the Corporate Work Study Program at Cristo Rey Network's Verbum Dei Jesuit High School in Los Angeles, is both leading and laser-focused on providing the same opportunities for others.

"It's a warm feeling to be at the school I graduated from," Jovel said. "But there's a strong sense of urgency, too."

Jovel earned bachelor's and master's degrees from L.A.'s Loyola Marymount University, interned on Capitol Hill, and was previously an instructor, admissions liaison, and dean of Students and Academics at Verbum Dei. It's a path some might not have predicted for him before transferring from a Compton, California, public school.

As Jovel explained, "In a lot of low-performing schools -- particularly in the inner city -- graduating from high school is something you hope that you are able to pull off. And yet, they weren't even talking about high school graduation," he said. "It was all about going to college and starting your career. And that ambition -- partnered with the care that they put into educating and forming us -- was absolutely empowering."

The first in his family to graduate college, Jovel was followed by his brother -- now also a college graduate.

"The way that we dreamed has impacted the rest of my family," Jovel said. "It's changed the course for generations to come."

His Cristo Rey Network story, Jovel emphasized, isn't unique.

"Our students across the country come from incredibly powerful families and histories," he said. "And the Cristo Rey mission takes that and places those values and stories in spaces where they'll be able to maximize those gifts and talents. It's impossible to not be energized by that ambition."