Florida may be next stop for highly regarded Catholic school network

A chain of Catholic, college-prep high schools that has demonstrated success with low-income students is eyeing two Florida cities for a possible expansion. Tampa and Miami are near the top of the list for the Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network, group president Rob Birdsell told redefinED. The reasons: A good job pool. The availability of tax credit scholarships. A need for more high-quality options for low-income kids. And maybe even some nudging from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“We very much want to get to Florida,” Birdsell said in a phone interview. “Gov. Bush is a friend of Cristo Rey (and) he is persistent.”

Lauded by education reformers and others for innovative work with Hispanic and African American students (see if you can get through this “60 Minutes” piece without crying), Cristo Rey now operates 24 Catholic high schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Its students typically come in two grade levels behind. But 84 percent of those who graduate enroll in college.

The students pay more than half of the $12,000 average tuition through a corporate work study program that gives them real-world experience at banks, hospitals, law firms and other partners. Accessing Florida’s tax credit scholarship program – worth $4,335 per student this fall – would fill out most of the remaining gap. That would take pressure off both the families and the network’s fundraisers.

Cristo Rey requires metro areas that are big enough to supply enough work study jobs. It also looks for cities where there seems to be a need for more proven options for low-income kids. Birdsell said the network does not compete with existing Catholic high schools because it will not enroll students who can get accepted in those schools.

The network is also looking at Atlanta and Phoenix for expansion. Not coincidentally, both cities are in states with tax credit programs.

Birdsell said the network should know by the end of the year whether it will launch a feasibility study for expansion to Tampa and Miami. Depending on when that study is completed, Cristo Rey could be operating in Florida in either 2013-14 or 2014-15.

The potential arrival would seem to be especially good for Tampa. The Diocese of St. Petersburg, in the Tampa Bay region, recently launched an ambitious plan to reverse declining enrollment in area Catholic schools and to restore their role as neighborhood pillars. The plan already includes partnering with another key player in Catholic education, the Notre Dame ACE Academies.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.