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Schools prep low-income kids for work

Students work on computers at Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School in Birmingham, Ala.

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KAI RYSSDAL:If you accept the proposition that high school is supposed to get kids ready for either college or work, then what's the best way to do that? Specifically, what's the best way to do it when the kids are from low-income, urban neighborhoods? One way is to make working part of the curriculum. The Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network of Catholic high schools has been doing that for more than 10 years. It runs schools in tough neighborhoods in 22 cities across the country.

Laurie Stern from American Radio Works joined incoming freshman at Holy Family Cristo Rey in Birmingham, Ala.


Jan Fuller: Good morning. How are you Ryan? Have we done our handshake this morning?

Laurie Stern: The handshake, the business way: Firm grip, look the other person in the eye, don't mumble your "good morning."

Nikki Ming: Good afternoon everyone. I'm Nikki Ming. I work for Regions Financial Human Resources Department as a recruiting coordinator.

Orientation takes place in the summer before school starts. The ninth graders learn what employers expect on the job: How to dress and speak professionally. The goal is that on the first day of work, each student should act like a worker, not a teenager.

Carlon Harris: Can you sign in for me?

Carlon Harris is 17 years old and a junior at Holy Family. He's been in the program three years. Every Wednesday, he mans the reception desk at the Innovation Depot, a business incubator in downtown Birmingham.

Harris: You constantly thinking when you're on the job. They make you think. You have to use your noodle, like, seriously.

Carlon's supervisor is Gerry O'Toole.

Gerry O'Toole: I've been able to give Carlon computer work, where he's gone and has done QuickBooks spreadsheets. Everything he does is right on the money.

Carlon is set to graduate high school in 2011. He wants to become a surgeon. He's a good example of how the Holy Family approach is supposed to work: Show low-income students they can have a better future if they apply themselves.

Father Alex Steinmiller: The DNA of doing that is perseverance.

Here's Father Alex Steinmiller, the school president.

Steinmiller: It's patience. It's long suffering. Any word you want to use. That's the value that the cycle of poverty chews up. The value of maintaining a goal and maintaining a dream.

Students at Holy Family don't have to be Catholic, but they do have to take a Catholic theology course every day. And every class opens with a prayer. In biology, it's Avis Moore's turn to lead.

Avis Moore: Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Avis Moore is a ninth grader and a sharp dresser. Today, Avis is wearing a gray-patterned vest and black tie over a crisp white shirt.

Avis: Uh, I'm trying to start in business, you know, lawyer, office work, stuff like that. If that doesn't work out, I'm going into fashion.

This winter, Avis started working Fridays at a clinic at the University of Alabama hospital, where he greets patients and files medical records. The clinic gets a different student-worker from Holy Family every day of the week and pays the school an entry-level salary -- in Birmingham, that's $21,500. That money offsets Holy Family's sliding scale tuition.

Avis Moore's mother, Vanessa, pays $45 every two weeks, or about $1,000 a year. Vanessa is 41, a part-time cashier at two discount stores. Most nights, she comes home bone tired to a rented house that she keeps dark to save on the electric bill.

Vanessa Moore: Why my house smell like it's smelling?

She says she rides both her sons hard to keep them out of trouble.

Vanessa: Did you take the garbage out? You?

Son 2: I took the garbage out.

Vanessa: Did anybody mop my floors in here?

Avis: No, I just got in.

The Moore's household is typical for Holy Family: low income, single parent and ready to sacrifice so the children can get ahead.

Vanessa: I dropped out of high school in 11th grade. I didn't really have that parental push. You know what I'm saying? Like, I push them? I didn't have that. That's how come I'm so hard on them about education. It's very important to get it, because you don't want to be like me, working retail jobs, making little money. I want y'all to do better than what I do.

Jan Fuller: Some of the students here that come from such destitute homes, you don't know it, because they come here with a smile, because they're happy to be here, they're happy to be away from home. They see that college is about to happen and I can get away from home. Some of them see it. Some of them don't.

Jan Fuller directs Holy Family's corporate internship program, which works with companies like accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, Alabama Public Television and about 60 other employers.

Back at Innovation Depot, junior Carlon Harris is one of the ones who sees it. Carlon says he was intimidated at first, but after three years on the job, he's become confident.

Harris: You know, you mold yourself, because now I'm able to speak to people, speak out in class more. You become more profound; they make you become more than what you really are.

Carlon Harris is a Holy Family success story. And Holy Family is a Birmingham success story. Holy Family has readied 150 students for the workplace. And, despite the recession, it's found job placements for all of them.

This is Laurie Stern for Marketplace.

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