New Catholic high school considered for Milwaukee

The city of Milwaukee is exploring the possibility adding a Catholic high school geared towards low-income students, and led by the Cristo Rey Network, a national organization that oversees 24 private Catholic high schools with 6,500 students across the United States. These private high schools have a history of getting students with limited education opportunities into college.

At the beginning of this month, a formal announcement was made that the Cristo Rey Network is launching a one-year study to see if Milwaukee is ready for another Catholic high school in partnership with Marquette and the Bradley Foundation — a private, independent grantmaking organization based in Milwaukee that supports research and educational programs and projects.

Three years ago, the Milwaukee community expressed interest in adding a Cristo Rey school. Robert Birdsell, the president and CEO of Cristo Rey, and the Rev. John Foley, the organization’s founder, came to Milwaukee to speak about a possible Cristo Rey high school. The only hold-up at the time was that a feasibility study — the research to determine if the school would take away from other private schools and if Milwaukee was fit for such an institution — had to be conducted by a Catholic entity.

Marquette’s William Henk, the dean of the College of Education, was present at the meeting and asked Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki if Marquette could assist in the research and be the Catholic entity involved. The response was yes.

“The total funding needed for the study is approximately $100,000 to $150,000,” Henk said. “We sought funding and got about half, maybe 40 percent, and we are going after the rest coupled with in-kind support. In addition, we have free time given by myself, the College of Education staff, the assistant dean, my executive assistant and from the College of Business Administration and the Diederich College of Communication who said they would provide help as needed. The Bradley Foundation also donated $50,000.”

Funding is not complete but with the support of free time and other fundraising Henk is sure they will make ends meet.

Birdsell said he is anxious to see the study get underway in June. With the average income of their students $35,000 for a family of four, he said students deserve every opportunity to receive a quality education possible.

“I’m from Milwaukee, I taught at Marquette and I knew students who wanted to go to Marquette but couldn’t afford it,” Birdsell said. “I thought Milwaukee would be a great place for a Cristo Rey high school.”

Every Christo Rey student participates in a work-study program. He or she takes a full course load while working in a professional job setting once a week during their four years to contribute to tuition and simultaneously learn job skills. Job locations have included law firms, banks, hospitals and corporate partners.

“Working a real job, not an internship, not a charity case, they can be a receptionist, mail room (worker), work in research and development,” Birdsell said. “Students are seeing a world they have never seen. Some students who live in Chicago have never seen the Loop, or Lake Michigan; they live in an oyster.

Henk said he is remaining objective on the research front but has a positive opinion about the students working while doing their studies.

“It really teaches the students the value of an education because they are working for it,” Henk said. “By having job experience it teaches them how to study, what they are going to face in college and (it provides) real life experiences they can reflect on.”

Besides the Bradley Foundation and Marquette, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is invested in seeing a low-income high school in Milwaukee.

Katy Venskus, MMAC’s legislative director, said the organization has been one of the most prominent voices in Milwaukee to expand the quality of schools and increase student capacity.

“A clear focus of the work we have engaged in has been to develop high-performing schools that serve the high poverty student population,” Venskus said in an email. “We will be an active participant as an organization and will support our individual members who are working on this project as actively as we are able.”

The study will be conducted by Andy Stitch, a Marquette alumnus and vice president of institutional advancement at a Cristo Rey high school in Kansas City, Mo.

“He is the perfect choice because he is in charge of all fundraising in Kansas City and that is what we need here.” Henk said.

Listecki has voiced concerns in the past to Henk, Birdsell and the community about how the school may take away students from other Catholic high schools, but many of the people involved in making the high school possible  do not foresee this happening.

“The people who will be attending this school would never be able to attend a private institution on their own,” Birdsell said. “I don’t see a Cristo Rey high school taking away from other Catholic schools; they never have before.