Cristo Rey Philadelphia
Podcast #105 — Aired September 19, 2016

A good education can open the door to a better world. That’s the thinking behind Cristo Rey Philadelphia, college preparatory school for students who otherwise cannot afford a private education. Founder and President John McConnell will tell listeners how Cristo Rey Philadelphia is changing lives for young people in need and preparing them for college and beyond.

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John McConnell
President & Founder, Cristo Rey Philadelphia

Mr. McConnell is the head of the school’s leadership team and represents Cristo Rey to the Philadelphia community. He retired as a partner at the management consulting firm Deloitte in order to lead the founding of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School. He has served as Chairman of the Board at St. Joseph's Prep and is an active parishioner at St. Katherine of Siena in Wayne, PA. Mr. McConnell is a graduate of St. Joseph’s Prep (1970) and Georgetown University (B.S. B.A., 1974). He earned a Masters in Business Administration degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 1982. A Philadelphia native and father of four, he lives with his wife, Gwen, in St. David's, PA.

 

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
Hi, welcome to Better Worldians Radio. Better Worldians Radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. I'm Ray Hansell. Better Worldians Radio is brought to you by Better Worldians Foundation and it's co-hosted by the family team that created the popular social game on Facebook called A Better World. A Better World rewards players for doing good deeds in the real and virtual world while helping to raise money and awareness for charities. So far over 40 million good deeds have been done in A Better World by more than 4 million people around the globe in over 100 countries. These good deeds include expressions of gratitude, acts of kindness and sending notes to real world sick kids just to name a few. This week on Better Worldians Radio, we welcome John McConnell, the founder and president of Cristo Rey, Philadelphia. A college preparatory school for students who cannot otherwise afford a private education. John retired as a partner at the management consulting firm Deloitte in order to lead the founding of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School. He has served as chairman of the board at St. Joe's Prep. He's an active parishioner at St. Catherine of Siena in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Hes also a graduate of Georgetown University and earned a Master's in Business Administration degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Hi, John. Thanks so much for joining us today at Better Worldians Radio.

John
Hi, Ray and thanks for having me.

Raymond Hansell
You are very welcome. I'd like to begin by having you tell our listeners a little bit about the Cristo Rey mission and how thats accomplished.

John
Well, the Cristo Rey missions really began in Chicago in 1996 with a school on the Southside in Pilsen and that school still exists. But now today there are 32 Cristo Rey schools in the United States and they all follow the same, what we call mission standards that would mean our purpose and the purpose of all the Cristo Rey schools is to serve very low income students who want to go to college but who, because of the circumstances in their cities, have almost no access to high quality college prep education. So the Cristo Rey network serves about almost 11,000 students now across the country in 32 different schools, all preparing for not just to get into college but to get in and out of college and graduate.

Raymond Hansell
That's amazing and you say that close to 11,000 students have gone through the Cristo Rey sets of schools around the country?

John
Actually no, many more than 11,000 have gone through but 11,000 students are sitting in desks in Cristo Rey schools right today.

Raymond Hansell
Oh my gosh, what's the impact been?

John
Well, the impact is that thousands and thousands of very low income kids across the country are going to college and graduating from college and these are kids that because of their circumstances, because of the fact that they were born into poverty, would have otherwise had no chance to go to college and they are going and they're graduating. They're getting terrific jobs after they graduate.

Raymond Hansell
And what about the socio economic impact of these kids going through it having that opportunity versus you know, being confined by the circumstances of their life?

John
Well, the irony of education in most of the cities in the United States today is that the students who need high quality education to escape poverty and earn a life of dignity are the exact same students who have the hardest time getting access to high quality education and that's the purpose of the Cristo Rey schools. It's to provide high quality education to these kids who would otherwise have none and without it would almost have no chance to escape poverty. Those of us in the network and all of us in the school in Philadelphia believe that the only really reliable, historically reliable way for families to escape generational poverty is through education and yet poor people have the hardest time getting education so that's why the schools exist.

Raymond Hansell
Now you found the Cristo Rey Philadelphia in 2012 just a few short years ago. What inspired you to do that?

John
Well, I would say several things. First of all, I was fortunate enough to receive a very high quality education. From the time I entered preschool. I went to a terrific grade school, terrific high school, terrific college, graduate school and you know that was allthat all had nothing to do with my deserving. I just happened to be born to parents who could afford that and basically, gave that gift of education to me. The kids that we serve have no such good luck. So we offer it to them the same thing that was offered to me so that would that was one of the motivating factors. The other was as you mentioned, I was chairman of the St. Joes Prep. Philadelphians know that St. Joes Prep is one of the finest college prep schools in the country. But while I was chairman of the board there, I used to say that the boys who are going to St. Joe's Prep are very fortunate to go here but the fact of the matter is because of their own family circumstances living in wealth. They would probably do just fine no matter where they went to high school. So I said we ought to findwe ought to build a school that was just as good in quality as St. Joes Prep but would serve people who would completely change their lives.

Raymond Hansell
You know it's funny you mention that because I remember when my son went to Malvern Prep, sorry to say that on the air. But he had a recruiter at the time who said to me you know, Your son probably academically could do well in any of the schools that you could send them to in your region. He said but here, he's going to enter an environment where doing well is the norm not the unusual.

John
Yeah, that's right.

Raymond Hansell
And that really set him apart and he did exceptionally well there and went on just as you did. So I can see what you're saying. I can see that that's true for many of the schools throughout the region and throughout the country that do that.

John
Well, that's right. That's right. Speaking of Malvern, you might be interested to know that in fact, any Better Worldian would be interested to know that it is people from Malvern and people from St. Joe's Prep and people from terrific educational institutions around the city, they are the supporters of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School and that's how we got the school started and that's how we sustain the model on an ongoing basis.

Raymond Hansell
That's really a great example of Better Worldians in action and I think that's really nice because it's a generational thing. You can see that we're actually preparing these young people to be Better Worldians for the future. So tell me what's the feedback been like from these Cristo Rey students? What are they telling you about their experience there?

John
Well, first of all let me tell you exactly what the experience is. The school is not a charter school. We don't get any funding from the state of Pennsylvania. The school is also not funded at all by the church in Philadelphia or by any church in Philadelphia. And of course, it's not funded either by tuition because if the family could afford to pay tuition we wouldn't admit them to the school, they would be too wealthy. So the way we fund the school is that every student who comes to Cristo Rey goes to school 4 days a week and they work a job 1 day a week and they work a job that we get them and they are jobs in 90 of Philadelphia's finest companies like Comcast and Independents Blue Cross. Banks, law firms, accounting firms and they do real work and they earn real money and the money they earn goes back to the school to fund the majority of the cost of their education. So when the students experience at Cristo Rey includes work and it includes work in fantastic experiences and it is that experience that we believe helps them develop real world skills and go on to college and be successful in college. So it's a remarkable experience for a 14-year-old to go to school for 4 days and then go to a law firm or a bank or an accounting firm on that fifth day.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah, I can imagine that this really prepares them for college in other ways because I would imagine that people looking at the resume and the application coming in from a Cristo Rey student with that kind of work experience to supplement that and also the character that it builds really probably influences them to accept that student, doesn't it.

John
You're exactly right. The work study program is maybe first, a financial miracle in that it enables a student to go to a school like this who couldn't otherwise do it. But that's really not the biggest miracle, the biggest miracle is the experience that that provides to the student. The vista that it provides to a bigger world and the fact that it shows the student that they have a rightful place in that bigger world. They can be a doctor, they can be a lawyer and that's the miracle of Cristo Rey.

Raymond Hansell
That's the miracle of Cristo Rey. That's amazing and it is a miracle when you see the transformational effect that that can have. I just want to make one more comment about that that breaking out of that neighborhood is like breaking the paradigm of what's expected of the students or the kids that age in that spear and instead of actually falling into the rut of generational poverty, it says well, there's a much bigger world out here. Look at this, look at Comcast, look at this experience I'm having. Oh now, I've got a different job next year and so this is and by the way, one of our people, one of our staffers here mentioned when we told them that we were going to be on the program. She said, Don't you remember when you recruited me to come work here? She said, I had just supervised a work study program of Cristo Rey students out in Minneapolis. I said, Oh yeah, that's right and she just raved about her experience with the Cristo Rey student population so we had a firsthand experience itself.

John
Wow.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah, great. John; That was terrific.

John
Yeah.

Raymond Hansell
We're going to talk more about Cristo Rey Philadelphia in a moment. But right now I'd like to take a brief break to tell our listeners a bit about our game on Facebook called A Better World. A Better World as a virtual world game on Facebook that encourages habits of goodness, positive mindsets and giving to social causes to make a positive difference in the world. Players actually do things like express gratitude for some of the things that are happening in their life, share acts of kindness and even send get well notes to real world sick children and many, many more. As a part of what we do here we also have a charity of the month and so we actually allocate funds that we distribute to specific charities and this month, we're happy to share the Cristo Rey Philadelphia is our charity partner for the month of September. We're challenging our players in A Better World to complete 250,000 good deeds in the game this month. When they do and we're sure that they will, we were released funds to provide transportation for those same Cristo Rey students to get to and from their work study programs. You can find out more about at abetterworld.com. You can find out more about the entire program at abetterworld.com. So now let's get back to our conversation with John McConnell, founder and president of Cristo Rey Philadelphia. So you've talked a little bit about the experience with the students. What have the students actually told you about this experience themselves? I mean, I'm sure you interact with them on a regular basis.

John
I do and when they tell us a lot of different things. First of all, from an academic point of view they tell us from the first day all the way to the last day that it's really hard. They say it's rigorous and they take lots of math and science and Latin and they like to sound like they're complaining but in fact, I really think they enjoy the rigor of the work. As far as the work study program is concerned, they like it from the first day. It's a unique experience for them to leave their neighborhood, go downtown even the fact of going downtown is a unique experience to many of our students. And then they go into these office buildings and they're treated politely and respectfully by people that they really have never encountered before and they learn about a different kind of a way of working and living that they didn't have never experienced before. So I remember even in our first year, a student who was working at CHOP, a hospital in Philadelphia, came to me. This young lady had never been to Center City before and now she said, Mr. McConnell, Ive been working at CHOP and I think I have my life figured out. I'm going to be a pediatric oncologist. Of course, I had to ask her what that meant. But she was convinced that that's where she was going to go and of course, she had no idea what that was before she started at Cristo Rey.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah, that opened up the world for them. You know, about a year or so ago we had Mark Vetri of the Vetri Ristorante organization. He has a foundation called Vetri Foundation. They actually bring fresh, cooked meals to children in the elementary school throughout some of the same regions that you serve in Philadelphia and his experience was that for the first time, these people saw vegetables that they had never seen and they saw them prepared in a way that they hadn't experienced. So I think opening that world that world that exists for us and not for others is a great way to function and really promote the kind of work that we're doing here in at Better Worldians.

John
So maybe the world of Better Worldians is getting smaller because Marc Vetri also provides healthy breakfasts and lunches here at Cristo Rey and so our kids get that same fantastic experience of eating fresh, healthy foods every day and that's all thanks to Mark.

Raymond Hansell
That's fantastic. There's a nod in another direction for one of our other Better Worldians. And you had your first graduating spring class this past year and from what I understand, 100 percent of the students were accepted at 4 year of college. What does that mean to you?

John
I like to say that's halftime of our goal. Our goal at Cristo Rey is to graduate from college so we were thrilled that 100 percent of our first class of graduates were accepted into college and I say that's just like going into the locker room at halftime with a lead that we still have the second half to play and the second is graduate from college. But we're thrilled that they were all accepted. We're thrilled that 40 percent of the class or roughly 40 of our kids are going to college on a full ride, room and board and our students are not going to just ordinary college. They're going to some of the finest colleges in the country NYU, Georgetown, Villanova, St Joe's, Temple, terrific schools and so we're very proud of that.

Raymond Hansell
So brings up another question I had planned to ask you. You started to answer it already and that is that your students are kept tabs on by some of your staff. They keep a watch on what's going on after they graduate. So how do they do that? Do they encourage the students to communicate directly to some of the staffers or do they automatically follow up with the students as well?

John
Well, our school like almost every one of the Cristo Rey schools, hires a staff of people to keep tabs with our graduates while they are in college and that's pretty close tabs. We understand the courses that they're enrolled in and the grades that they're getting and where they're living, part time job that they may have and we visit them periodically. Maybe once a semester wherever they happen to be and make sure that you know that simple little problems get solved as opposed to becoming a reason for dropping out.

Raymond Hansell
You might be interested to know that this woman who works for us who had mentioned had the experience working in supervisory capacity work study program. Actually she still keeps tabs with the students that she had many years ago at Minneapolis state and this is a work study situation so it's not you know an employee of Cristo Rey, it's an affiliate organization. Like in this case I guess, at Comcast or somebody else. A job that basically here somebody has long since left that particular company and still keeps a tab the students, take the initiative and sometimes she does as well. So that connection is really strong throughout the entity. That's really great.

John
Yeah, that doesn't surprise me. All of us who work with these kids and when I say all of us, I mean the faculty and the staff and our work study partners, the supervisors you know, come to know them as though they were own kids and so it doesn't surprise me that they have stuck together and that they keep track of each other and are celebrating their success together.

Raymond Hansell
So what's been the most rewarding aspect of all this for you?

John
Well, certainly that graduation event. At least for now was a very rewarding aspect that showed that the school works, this model works and you know hopefully, we're going to get the results for these terrific kids that we anticipated. The other thing that is rewarding to me is to see how our community in Philadelphia has rallied around this model. You know, this model requires the collaboration of businesses, of universities, of the elementary schools that our kids come from, of health care agencies in town, as you brought up Mark Vetri and people like that. So this Cristo Rey school is a pretty extensive collaboration of a lot of different entities in Philadelphia all for the purpose of doing good for these kids.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah, that's really good. Really, really good stuff. You have some favorite success story or story that you want to share with us about a child or a student?

John
Well you know we have a lot of students who on the first day, you would never expect could make it, you know. Their communication skills are not what you would expect in a law firm in the city and their habits for studying are not refined and to see those kids turn around, it really gives you confidence. Not just in the kids in the school but really in every kid in Philadelphia whoeven a 14 years old hasn't had access to quality education. It just makes you think that with the right access to quality education, the Philadelphia workforce and our entire community has resources in it that are beyond our imagination.

Raymond Hansell
This is really, this is really great stuff. How do you suppose? We ask this question of all of our guests at the end of our program. How do you suppose the Cristo Rey is helping to make the world a better place?

John
Well you know, I think we are offering a better world that most of us already know, that you and I know and we're offering access to that to thousands of kids across the country who would otherwise have no access to it. So that's I think that's pretty significant.

Raymond Hansell
Yes, indeed. It's very significant. I'm reminded of a program that we did not too long ago with a guy from Scotland by the name ofwhat's his name Magnus MacFarlane Barrow that was this name. That's his name and that he started a program called Mary's Meals which emanated from his and his brother's just going over to Eastern Europe and pitching in and helping people in a war torn area and now today, they are focusing on giving away a million bowls of porridge. It's the daily meal for a million kids every single day in villages around Africa and the byproduct of this is guess where they get the meal? They get the meal at school so effectively, it's opening this exact same type of experience on a very different level where people are starving to death and you're bringing to them not only the nourishment they need to survive, but also the nourishment in the mind and I think that's what Cristo Rey really is offering is the glimpse of a better world for students who otherwise would not see it. So congratulations on the great work you're doing there. For our listeners, you can learn more about Cristo Rey by going to cristoreyphiladelphia.org. John, thank you so much for joining us today on Better Worldians Radio.

John
Well, thank you very, thanks for having us.

Raymond Hansell
And you're very, very welcome. Better Worldians Radio is brought to you by Better Worldians Foundation, 501C3 nonprofit whose mission is to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. We believe it's essential to plant flowers not just pull weeds so we focus on positive thinking, positive values and positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the Better Worldian in everyone so that we can all make it a better world. But we certainly could use your help at this point. Donations, support Better Worldians Radio podcast as well as go toward developing new features like articles, videos, blogs and more. So if you want to pitch in and help us, go to betterworldians.com and be part of our mission here as well. Until next time everyone please, be a Better Worldian.