Opening new doors
This article is reprinted from the summer 2011 issue of HOPE.
While the Sisters of Providence have a goal of “breaking boundaries, creating hope” in their work, it’s not often this gets to happen by opening a new school.
But that’s what happened in 2007 when the Congregation sponsored Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis. Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp, along with other Sisters of Providence and volunteers, worked hard with the Cristo Rey Network to create the school, which is a college prepartory program that includes work study at local businesses. Students come from families that cannot afford other private school options.
Students spend four days a week in classes and one day a week at a corporate job site, such as Eli Lilly, AIT Laboratories, Advantage Heath, many downtown law firms, as well as St. Vincent, St. Francis and Community hospitals. Businesses receive the benefit of a full-time employee with five students filling one job, while students receive a substantial tuition benefit that provides a private school education. The program offers students the opportunity to build essential job skills while completing their college preparatory program. Last year, 100 percent of the students in the Cristo Rey Network were accepted to college.
Some of these students were at risk of not completing high school and in a few short years have been transformed into true leaders, on track to reach significant success in their lives.
Sister Maureen Fallon has been present for this transformative experience in the school and the students.
Sister Maureen has taught high school for 30 years as a Sister of Providence, but Providence Cristo Rey was her first opportunity to start something from scratch. “I spent the first week shoveling out the leftover trash, then I opened my desk drawer and it was empty,” she said. “It’s part of the thrill.”
There was a big challenge in creating a school where none existed before. “We were trying to create a culture of college prep and college ready where there was none,” she said.
It wasn’t easy, but the faculty and staff are getting there. It’s exciting to see, too, that the culture is developing with the heavy influence of the Sisters of Providence and Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. All sophomores at Providence Cristo Rey visit Saint Mary-of-the-Woods where they learn about the foundress, the SP history and traditions and learn about White Violet Center for Eco-Justice.
Portraits of Saint Mother Theodore hang in every classroom at Providence Cristo Rey and the students seem to grasp her importance and influence on their history. Sister Maureen went with the volleyball team to a game at St. Theodore Guerin High School in Noblesville, Ind., and the students were surprised to see a large portrait of their saint at the school. “They said, ‘Sister, what’s our saint doing in their school?’ I told them it was OK – the school was named after her. They asked, ‘Did they get permission?’”
The students have surprised Sister Maureen in their beliefs and relationship to Jesus. “Their spiritual life is way deeper than anything I have seen,” she said. “It really gives me hope for the next generation.”
The culture of the school as being born from the original mission of a saint is one way the sisters are trying to create a culture. Another is by constant reinforcement of the benefits for students of their education. “We are really trying to change the culture of education for these kids,” she said. The school is open on Saturdays, so students without computers or a quiet place to study, or who need help with homework or a term paper, can have access to a place to work and to assistance with study.
“I think they were told they could be successful, but they had no idea what that meant,” she said. “They never had models for success.”
Just the factsYear opened: 2007
Number of students enrolled: 70
Number of seniors 2011: 25
College scholarships for the Class of 2011:$1 million
Number of faculty & staff: 27
Number of SP faculty & staff: 4
Teachers engage the students in discussions about current events, even Sister Maureen, who teaches physics, algebra II and calculus. All of the teachers encourage the students in their educational quest toward college. She finds herself explaining the details of the process of testing, applying for and being accepted to college, as well as telling kids what life will be like on their own: setting their own study habits, doing laundry and all of the experiences that come with college life. Many of these students don’t have family and friends to whom they can look for this advice and guidance.
“We broaden their experiences, broaden their horizons, and they broaden our understandings, too,” she said. “We bring in more global issues than the students have in the forefronts of their minds.”
And much like the transformation of the school from a dusty mess to the bright, cheerful educational home it is today, Sister Maureen has witnessed similar transformations in her students. Most of the kids have never passed an ISTEP test (Indiana’s standardized test where passing is a requirement for high school graduation) when they enter Providence Cristo Rey.
“We don’t give up on them,” she said. “If you create a culture that says it is OK to be successful, then the students learn how to do it.”