John R. McConnell, Founder and First President, Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School May 19, 2013
President Marie George, Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Vice Chairman Tom Nerney, Provost Anne Skleder, members of the Board of Trustees, and graduates of the Class of 2013 and your families, congratulations!
I am thrilled to be with you on this exciting day, and I am most grateful to receive Cabrini’s honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
A few weeks ago, I came to the campus, for some coaching from a group of your fellow students about what might interest you today, so I want to begin by thanking those students for their good advice: Chris, Elyse, Stephanie, Jessica, Maria, and Jean.
My original plan was to talk about how we started the new high school in Philadelphia or maybe how I left a career in business to begin a new one in education.
They are good stories, and I love to tell them, but the group convinced me to share a slightly different story. It's the story of what has happened to me along the way to Cristo Rey.
At Cabrini, I think you would call my story an Education of the Heart.
Today, I am the President of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, a brand new school for very low-income students who want a top quality college prep education, but can’t afford it.
We are a private school, but none of our families can afford tuition, so every Cristo Rey student goes to school four days per week and goes to work one day per week.
They work at leading companies like Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, law firms, hospitals and banks. Four of our students work at Tom Nerney’s company, USLI, and we are very grateful for that.
The students do real work and they earn real wages, and the money they earn goes back to the school to fund the cost of their education. So one of the miracles of Cristo Rey is about the money, but a bigger miracle is the experience the students gain on the job.
Since we are in our first year, we have 124 freshmen in the school. Each of them has been going to work for nine months and the experience is already transforming their lives.
The job makes them feel valued. They feel accomplished. At fourteen years of age, they are working in professional settings and they are beginning to feel like they belong. They have a different sense of themselves and the whole idea of work.
We all love to watch the growing confidence of our freshmen. Rishaun works in the Mayor’s office. Recently, I asked him, “What do you like about working with Mayor Nutter?”
He said, “It’s really good practice for me, Mr. McConnell, because someday, I’m going to be the mayor!”
The founding of Cristo Rey has been a long and winding road, and no doubt, a fantastic education of my own heart. Like any good education, it has been challenging, rewarding and fun! Yes, fun, and a source of genuine happiness and joy.
So I want to try to explain the joy of the journey of Cristo Rey and some of the lessons that I have learned along the way.
Hopefully, you might find something in my story that will be useful for you.
I will call the first lesson, “taking care of business.”
I received my own graduate degree—an MBA—31 years ago, on a Sunday in May, just like today. My wife, Gwen, and I already had our first child and another was on the way, so I began my new job on the very next day.
My career in management consulting never felt like a job, but rather, the best of all sports. I learned from great coaches who taught me to love the game and to play it well.
I traveled the world to serve terrific clients and I met talented and big-hearted people who have become long-lasting friends, and today many of those friends are involved with us at Cristo Rey.
My business career was an important preparation for Cristo Rey. I learned essential lessons in teamwork, collaboration, leadership, and the art of persuasion. Today, I would say that my business career was God’s way of warming me up for Cristo Rey.
Lesson #2: Recognize your own potential.
I have been incredibly fortunate, all of my life, even since the day I was born. I was born in America, to good parents. I’ve been lucky with family, friends, education—you name it!
I know that I did nothing, myself, to earn that good luck. I have no illusions about that. I don’t believe that any of us are here today, in this peaceful setting, because of our own doings.
But I do believe that all of my gifts were given to me for a reason, that God had something in mind.
At Cristo Rey, I feel like I am doing what I was designed and built to do. All of the parts seem to be working together, so I experience an authentic and durable happiness that makes day-to-day disappointments seem trivial.
Find your own true purpose. Don’t let bashfulness, or phony humility, get in the way of recognizing your own potential. I believe that when you live your own “right purpose,” you will discover your own authentic happiness.
Next: Do something that matters.
This group at Cabrini doesn’t need to be convinced that education matters. We all know that quality education is essential for earning a life of dignity, and yet our current system of education provides the highest quality education for the privileged and the lowest quality education for the kids who need education the most.
There are about 17,000 eight graders in Philadelphia today and 12,000 of them come from low-income families. By September of this year, 75% of those low-income students will be forced into low-quality high schools because the better schools are just not accessible to them.
But all of us know that if a low-income student doesn’t get a good high school education, his odds of escaping the cycle of poverty are almost zero. So in this year alone, 9,000 Philadelphia students will effectively have the door to a life of dignity slammed in their faces at 14 years of age! And this happens every year!
So what do you think that feels like to the parents of those children? Parents who definitely know the consequences, because of their own experience of living in poverty?
I don’t think we can even imagine what that feels like.
So we need to ask ourselves: Is this the kind of community we want to live in? From a purely practical perspective, can we afford this enormous waste of human potential? Do we think that we, the lucky ones, are unaffected by this problem? And most importantly, can our educated hearts bear the shame?
So what shall we do? That brings us to solutions and another lesson that we are learning at Cristo Rey.
Most of us, here today, believe that this problem can be solved. We can do it, if we use our educated hearts and minds with focused determination.
But I don’t think we will make a difference simply by working harder. Most good schools have reached the limits of working harder, and at Cristo Rey I think we are dealing with challenges that traditional methods don’t address.
We know that it’s harder for a student to learn algebra when she lives in a dangerous neighborhood. It’s harder to learn anything when you are frightened or lonely. The evidence is overwhelming that kids learn slower when they eat lousy food or when they are not healthy. All of this stuff, and much more, gets in the way of preparing for success in college.
Our students at Cristo Rey have big gaps to fill before they can be successful at college. We will fill some of those gaps in the classroom, but not enough of them. We will fill more of those gaps when we partner with businesses.
And even more still, when we partner with feeder schools and universities and health care providers and nutrition experts and mental health counselors, etc., etc., etc.
So, the mission of Cristo Rey impels us to be inclusive and collaborative and welcoming of others’ ideas. The students are the central focus of our community and that single purpose inspires collaboration. We are not divided into groups of teachers and learners.
Everyone in our community learns from the students. We all have plenty to learn from each other, and plenty to teach each other.
When visitors come to Cristo Rey, they often say, “Wow, these are extraordinary kids!” but I don’t really think so. I know our kids, and I love them, and I know that they are not extraordinary.
They are typical of all of the ninth graders that are growing up in our neighborhoods today in Philadelphia and Camden, and they are typical in most every respect, including their enormous potential to do good for themselves and for our community.
That’s why, at Cristo Rey, the adults are inspired by the students. When our students fail, we fail too. When they succeed, we share their joy.
Their success is a joy, so wonderful for all of us, that I can’t adequately describe it.
Katherine of Siena once wrote, “All of the way to heaven is heaven.” I don’t know anything about heaven, but I know the joy of the journey of Cristo Rey. It is a priceless reward for the work.
I wish that kind of joy for all of you.
Graduates of the Class of 2013, I am excited by the promise of your educated hearts, and your own enormous potential to do good for yourselves and for our community.
Whether you have earned an M.Ed. or MSOL, I hope some of you will apply yourselves to the challenge of urban education. We certainly need your help!
I hope some of you will come knocking on our door at Cristo Rey. You will be most welcomed.
And, to all of you, I wish you authentic joy.