Megan SWEAS. Putting Education to Work: How Cristo Rey Schools are Transforming Urban Education.  New York: HarperOne, 2014. pp. 264, hardcover. ISBN 978 0 6228801 1. Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, BBI-TAITE, Sydney, Australia.


his is a timely book. The recent NCEA statistical directory for 2016-2017 in many ways makes sombre reading.  The decline in enrolments in American Catholic schools has been a decades long trend.  Indeed in the last ten years total enrolments across the nation have declined 10 percent.  This means that in 2017 there are fewer students in Catholic schools in the United States then there were in 1920.  In that time, of course, the population of the country has tripled. This is the context in which a book such as this must be read. A new model of Catholic education must, in the first instance, be viable.

The main driver behind the decline in enrolments is the financial constraints under which Catholic schools operate.  This is not the only determining factor but when Catholic schools receive no support from government there is great pressure on schools to keep fees within the reach of most parents. (There are some examples of state funding such as tax credit schemes but these are not as yet significant on a national level). The first thing the reader looks for, therefore, in a book, such as this one is the funding model that the Cristo Rey schools use.  And indeed it is innovative, as well as conventional: the schools enter into partnerships where students work for private companies, ranging from huge corporations to small family businesses.  In exchange for a negotiated fee companies contact work study programs with schools to provide for staff entry level jobs for students.  The logistics of these arrangements are too complex to discuss in detail here but often involve job sharing on the part of students.  The essence of the model though is that it provides income to the school and to students. It also provides students with employment options and pathways to future careers. At present, revenue from the work study program covers operating expenses of the schools. Other fundraising covers between 30 and 40 percent of revenue.  This leaves tuition costs only having to cover about 10 percent of the cost of running the school.  This model appears to offer a viable and sustainable future for some Catholic schools.  One indicator of this is how the model is being used across the United States. With enough schools now taking part a network has been established which provides further support and chances to make connections outside the immediate area of a particular school.

The educational dynamic of the Cristo Rey schools is derived from their unique approach to funding.  Cristo Rey schools are populated by “students who work.”  The schools are largely situated in urban centres where many young people have limited educational opportunities.  In addition, they often have difficulty managing the transition from school to work as their education has not equipped them to move easily into full time employment.  In Cristo Rey schools students receive an education that aims to make them lifelong learners with a strong work ethic. They are also encouraged to realize the importance of making a contribution to the common good.  For many this is achieved by supporting initiatives in their local communities.  A feature of the book is the way in which the author uses the narratives of students involved in Cristo Rey schools to illustrate substantial points about the goals and aspirations of the program.  This makes the text very readable and gives insight into the lives of the students who are at the centre of the Cristo Rey model.