A new school, a new start

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2007 - 5:31 PM

A Jesuit high school opens in south Minneapolis to help low-income, minority students gain an edge in life.

Dyleydy Valdivie attended three junior high schools in three years. But now that she's in high school, the aspiring child psychologist is counting on spending the next four years in one place: a new Jesuit high school in Minneapolis that will require her to take rigorous classes, dress up, and work one day per week.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School starts classes this week in the Phillips neighborhood, with a student body of economically disadvantaged teens. The private school is one of 19 in the national Cristo Rey Network, which touts tough standards and high graduation rates as proof of its success.

"I wanted to come here, because when I grow up it's going to give me a better job and better everything," said Valdivie, 14, whose passion is working with children and the deaf.

One recent morning, the school's 99 ninth-graders piled into the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center's pumpkin- and-lime-green second floor, its layout more like an office building than a school.

Valdivie and others were learning skills for work: punctuality, drug tests, how to fill out paperwork. One teacher taught the art of conversation to students who had been instructed to dress in "business casual" attire.

One student was asked to introduce himself in a loud, crisp voice. Again. And again.

Downstairs, tables with folded napkins and sparkling silverware were set up for a lesson on dining etiquette.

All of this took place before Tuesday's official start of school. To prepare them for work and academic expectations, students had to attend three weeks of orientation.

"I got interested because it was safe here to learn and no one will judge you," said Jose Montes-Osorio, 14, an aspiring computer technician who lives six blocks from the school.

Kristine Melloy, a professor at the University of St. Thomas who is taking a leave of absence to serve as Christo Rey's first principal, said most of the students are two or three years behind academically.

"They're not the run-of-the-mill students," said the Rev. John Foley, president of the Cristo Rey Network, headquartered in Chicago. "They're kids who are motivated. They're kids who want something more. They're not necessarily well-prepared. We told them, 'If you do your best, we'll take care of the rest.'"

Corporate funding comes from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, venture capitalist B.J. Cassin and area businesses, which will employ students.

Like many in the network, the Minneapolis school sits in a poor neighborhood. The spacious new building on 4th Avenue S. near E. Lake St. also houses Urban Ventures, a faith-based community organization.

Light pours through floor-to-ceiling windows. A portrait of Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is scheduled to be in Minneapolis for next month's building dedication, hangs in the main hall.

Religious services are optional

Religious studies are in the curriculum, but daily services will be optional, said the Rev. David Haschka, the school's president.

"We're not going to downplay the Christianity, but we're not going to shove it down anyone's throat," said the Rev. Bill Johnson, Cristo Rey's admissions director.

The inaugural class includes Muslim Somalis, Hmong students from shamanistic backgrounds and students from Baptist and other Protestant families, Johnson said.

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