May President’s Pen: How are things going with Cristo Rey St. Martin?

“How are things going with Cristo Rey St. Martin?”  In these pandemic times that seemingly simple question is really quite complex.  A whole lot is going on right now, some of it heartbreaking, but much of it inspiring and hopeful.  Let’s start with our families.  About 1/3 of our parents lost their jobs in the first couple weeks of lockdown.  Our counselors estimate that about 135 of our families are experiencing some real catastrophic financial challenges including food insecurity, trouble paying rent, etc. Some essential needs are barely being met.  In partnership with our food service and Big Shoulders Fund, CRSM is distributing over 1,100 meals each week.  Many friends and donors stepped up to bolster our Emergency Fund, enabling us to help families facing urgent hardships.

Our students are determined and resourceful.  With the support of equally determined and resourceful teachers, they are doing reasonably well with remote learning.  Clearly, a greater number of students are struggling than were prior to the lockdown but we are working with them and I am gratified by their progress.  Our Emergency Fund helped get some students connected to the internet.  We went 1:1 with Chromebooks a few years ago so every CRSM student entered quarantine with a device and was familiar with several academic-related applications.  I cannot say the same for students in the Waukegan and North Chicago public school districts.  On a recent call with several area non-profits and district representatives, we heard about hundreds of students without devices and many, many households without Internet access.  More non-CRSM families than you can imagine entered lockdown at a huge disadvantage and have yet to recover.

Among the many advantages CRSM students have, I think the single most important thing they took when they left CRSM physically was a strong school culture and strong relationships with teachers and staff.  In many ways, distance learning is highlighting the fact that personal connections between students and teachers are essential for effective learning and that the relationships built prior to COVID are now driving student success remotely.  Consider our MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) testing this month.  MAP tests are national, adaptive assessments to measure academic growth.  You would think that getting students to even take the tests in a remote environment would be challenging but we had incredible participation rates, ranging from 94% participation in sophomore reading to 99% participation in both freshmen and sophomore math. In fact, more freshmen completed the reading and math tests this Spring than did this past Fall when we were in-person.  Our principal was recently contacted by the agency that administers MAP asking how we did it.

We have been utilizing MAP assessments since the fall of 2009. This Spring had a number of all-time highs in terms of scores and/or growth rates.  This would be incredible in normal times, but is even more extraordinary given the reality of our last 8 weeks.  Our freshmen grew 6.7 points in math from the fall, tripling the national growth rate and finished with the highest ever mean math scores of any Class in our school’s history.  Our sophomores finished with the highest mean scores in both reading and math of any prior class in CRSM history in their sophomore year.  Our Class of 2022 had the highest cumulative growth in math from fall of freshmen year to spring of sophomore year, growing 9.5 points – almost 5x the national average for the same period.

Our students are making documented progress in core foundational skills of literacy and numeracy. This didn’t happen overnight and it certainly didn’t happen because of remote learning.  Frankly, I believe it happened in spite of remote learning.  I suspect our students’ scores may have been even higher had COVID not intervened.  These milestones are a result of hard, deliberate work by our faculty and principal.

The Class of 2020 would have celebrated their graduation this weekend.  Instead, we held a virtual awards and Senior Send Off ceremony earlier this week and a virtual Baccalaureate mass with Fr. John Foley, SJ, founder of the Cristo Rey Movement.  Graduation is postponed until July 24 and it is looking like we may be able to have some in-person celebration with appropriate physical distancing, of course.  Keep your fingers crossed.

What is more challenging for our seniors is what will their freshman year of college look like?  Many families’ incomes have changed dramatically and are forcing students to rethink their path to a degree.  Many colleges are still not sure what their fall semesters will look like.  Some have announced remote learning until January, some are looking at bringing students to campus in stages, while the majority are still in “wait-and-see” mode.  Our alumni support team is accompanying our Class of 2020 as they pivot into a future that is still unfolding.  Ironically, the Class of 2020 is the first class in CRSM’s history to have every single student accepted to at least one Bachelor’s program.

Right now, the Corporate Work Study Program is in a precarious position but each week seems to bring a little more clarity about how our business partners are planning to reopen and, hopefully, how they will then reintegrate our student-workers into their workforce.  While only 15 of our 87 jobs have renewed for the coming year, only 5 have said they definitely will not return.  We are staying in close contact with our business partners, letting them know we and our students are here when they are ready.  Please pray for a safe and quick recovery.  The CWSP experience – our students entering adult professional environments and learning to hold their own and bring value – also generates income that covers 60% of the cost of operations for our entire school.

Two recent programs have really helped CRSM stabilize its finances.  The Paycheck Protection Program secured our payroll into the summer and the New Markets Tax Credit program is contributing significant funds to our Phase 2 campus project that began construction just before quarantine.  These needed infusions of income could not have come at a better time.

“How are things going with Cristo Rey St. Martin?”  They are going pretty well given the circumstances.  Much of the immediate future is unclear, some of our families are struggling mightily; but we have faith, we have hope, we have one another, and we have you – our friends and supporters.  We are doing the best we can with what we have – and we have so much compared to others.  We are grateful and looking forward to a new and better future together.  Please stay safe and healthy; pray for those who are not and pray, too, for those who are putting themselves at risk for our collective well-being.  ¡Viva Cristo Rey!  St. Martin de Porres pray for us!