What Happened to Creativity?

How does one continue to be creative?  It seems like sometimes there can be a great new idea, but after it’s launched, our brain goes on vacation and our creational gear slips right back into neutral.  Problems, old and new, present themselves and we continue to resolve them the way we always did.  Is that the fate of all new ideas?  How do we keep that creative spark alive and ask ourselves if there isn’t a new and better way to go about what we are doing?

Here at the Cristo Rey Network, for instance, while the magic of our model is the creation of a new revenue stream for the schools, the same revenue stream isn’t available to the Network itself.  I guess the first answer is that we always have to be critical.  To criticize something is to make a judgment about it.  Somewhere along the line of our (or at least my) religious formation, I think we have concluded that somehow we should not be judgmental.  (It’s true that Pope Francis’ comment “Who am I to judge?” gained worldwide attention, but he never meant to say that we should never make a judgment about anything!)  We are quick to quote St. Ignatius’ motto of AMDG, For the Greater Glory of God, for instance, but to decide what constitutes God’s greater glory requires making a judgment.  We judge that a particular action will give God more glory than another one.  So to be critical about how we go about something is to judge that this particular action is better than another one.  In the case of the Network, we talk about imposing a tax on the schools.  We say that they profit from the Network’s existence so they should be obliged to pay for it, even though many of them are already under a tremendous financial burden.  Do we make that judgment just because that’s the way we always did it?

I’m sure you know that Sr. Helen Prejean is the Sister of St. Joseph who works with prisoners on death row and is the one most responsible for making us see the barbarity of capital punishment.  She has given us a wonderful tool of discernment when she says that if something isn’t scary, a surprise and an adventure all at the same time, then it is not the gospel of Jesus.  In other words, the Holy Spirit is not necessarily identified with the tried and the true.  We cannot give up the quest for creativity.  May we always leave room for an adventure, for what surprises and scares us.  We cannot get comfortable with “the way we always do it.”

Pope Francis and 20/20

You may be aware that one of our schools was prominently featured on ABC’s 20/20 show a couple of weeks ago. At the end of August, I was making my annual Jesuit retreat all by myself at a condo in Florida that a cousin of mine generously lent to me.  The idea was to get away for eight days of quiet and reflection.  The material I was praying about was Cardinal Walter Kasper’s little book, Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love.  I wanted to pray about this Jesuit Pope’s insights into our Catholic faith.

On about the third day, the telephone rang in the condo and it was a call from Tony Ortiz, president of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in the Pilsen area of Chicago.  He said he was calling just to let me know that ABC had contacted the school with the very novel idea that Pope Francis would pay the school a virtual visit.  As original an idea as it was, Tony could only explain it to me in very general terms because ABC was purposely keeping the idea under wraps as much as they could.  He very kindly told me that, although so far the plans were still very general, if anything like that were to actually happen, he wanted me to know that I was most welcome to be present at the school.  I thanked him for calling and asked him to keep me in the loop as the idea matured.

He called again the next day to say that apparently the visit was not going to happen because as far as he could tell, communication between ABC and the Vatican had broken down.  So the story on day two was that there was to be no visit.  He called again on the third day to say that the plan was back on track, and the Pope had agreed to the virtual visit which was to be conducted two days later.  So I got a return ticket from Florida and was at the school, as instructed, bright and early the next morning.  So I interrupted my retreat in which I had been praying about Pope Francis’ call to emphasize God’s mercy to go to the chapel at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School where the Pope presented himself and had a very gracious interaction with a couple of our students.  What a surprise that my retreat changed venues but the person whose ideas I had been praying about became virtually present.  His absolute attention to everything the students were saying to him truly reminded me of Jesus Himself.  That virtual meeting with Pope Francis after days of praying about his ideas was one of the most moving experiences of my life.  Remember the haunting question that was so popular some years ago, “What would Jesus do?”  To know the answer all we have to do is watch Pope Francis on 20/20.

John Foley, SJ  Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 10.35.19 AM

The Leadership Triangle in a Cristo Rey School

By: John P. Foley, S.J., Chair Emeritus

Often enough when one is giving a schematic explanation of how a Cristo Rey school is organized, we think in terms of a direct line:  at the top is the President, second in line is the Principal and finally in third place the Director of the Corporate Work Study Program.  (Actually sometimes one gets the impression that the Corporate Work Study Director is in some sort of ancillary capacity, a sort of intruder in the whole academic scene.)  I do not think that schema accurately describes a Cristo Rey school; it misses a basic point in the whole educational model. 


Instead of a line, the more accurate description is a triangle.  The President is at the top and directly under the President are the Principal and the Corporate Work Study Director.  They are equally important in the school hierarchy, something academics often have a problem acknowledging.  As a result, both those offices at the school are given similar recognition.

When the Principal is taken into account, the Director is too.  Equally, when the Director is taken into account, the Principal is too.  The Principal and the Director both have a say about who is admitted to the school; both have a say about who is asked to leave the school.  In any kind of public formal setting, when one occupies a seat in a place of honor, the other does too.  In this way, the school is telling people that the Corporate Work Study Program is in no way an add-on but a program that is as basic to a Cristo Rey education as algebra or English literature.

Obviously such a structure, a triangle, supposes that the two can work in harmony, both equally responsible and equally committed to the integral formation of the students.  Ours are schools that professionally prepare young people for the work world they are moving into.  One of the happy results of this innovative structure is that, while in the past the President of a school had to be a school person and have clear academic credentials, that is no longer the case.  In our Cristo Rey model, we have discovered that it is sufficient that a good Principal be the academic leader and thus opening up the President’s position to people who come from other, equally professional, backgrounds.  It is obvious to everyone concerned how much value some of our non-academic presidents bring to our movement.

The Cristo Rey movement is an innovative educational model.  Much of the innovation comes from recognizing the education the students receive from working in a professional context.  Let us work on making that clear at all our Cristo Rey schools.

School Visits to Cleveland and Detroit

By: Randy Kurtz, President and CEO of the Cristo Rey Network


Detroit Cristo Rey High School:
Sonya Mays – Senior Assistant to the Emergency Manager of the City of Detroit, Randy Kurtz, President Mike Khoury, Principal Sue Rowe, Board Chair Sr. Barbara Stanbridge.

You don’t have to wonder much about the value of our mission when you visit our schools in Cleveland and Detroit, as I did last week.

Rich Clark’s school on the east side of Cleveland is a beacon of hope in a rough and tumble neighborhood within sight of downtown. The local Wendy’s has a high volume of retail traffic but is near the usual low income sights such as convenience stores masquerading as supermarkets, identifiable former chain retailing outlets now housing lower end establishments, boarded up buildings with a homeless man in front of the door. Careers, futures and dreams are not made on St. Clair Avenue.

Inside Saint Martin de Porres, however, Rich has 440 students pumped up about the new school year, the Healthy Lifestyles garden they tend that helps feed the student body, art projects and running cross country. And every student this year, for the first time, has an iPad as a learning tool.

Detroit Cristo Rey President Mike Khoury’s (Mike’s a former business exec) school is also a bright spot in its Hispanic neighborhood on the Southwest side of Detroit. I got to witness a hint of the rite of passage known as Quinceañera when I saw one of Mike’s young students driven around the school in an elegant horse drawn carriage. 

Detroit, however, is not a happy place. While you may have more recently learned about its economic travails, Detroit has been in fiscal decline for decades. It is much more dire than when I was responsible for the International House of Pancake restaurants in Detroit thirty years ago – and, even then, unemployment was above the national average.

But I am often struck by how God works in our mission. I invited my friend Sonya Mays to visit Detroit Cristo Rey and she pulled up in the parking lot just as I did last Friday afternoon. Sonya is a former middle school math teacher and Wall Street banker (which is how I got to know her) who now serves as Senior Advisor to the state-appointed Emergency Manager of the City of Detroit, Kevyn Orr.

What Sonya didn’t know is that our school had minutes before celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit and its kickoff of the new school year. Most of the school’s Board of Directors and several major donors were having lunch when we arrived. I was called on to make a brief presentation about the work of the Network office but the Q&A – once I introduced Sonya – quickly turned to the daunting civic service issues facing Detroit.

Sonya handled the questions about public transportation and fire and police protection with aplomb and grace. She spoke candidly about the challenges – providing tangible proof that the leadership downtown is working very hard and is focused on the most important issues. After the impromptu dialogue, Mike gave us a tour of the school, we met students and faculty and I saw the “inner” middle school teacher in Sonya light up as she grasped the essence of our work. She and Mike discussed who is and who is not on the corporate partner “bulletin board” and Detroit’s business and political landscape. It was fascinating to me – all I did was trail behind and listen like a school kid (and I’m older than both of them).

So our school has a new friend in a leadership role in America’s most troubled city and Sonya knows of a small Catholic high school on the Southwest side of Detroit where the Cristo Rey light burns brightly.

A Jew, a Muslim, and Four Priests

Guest Post by Jeff Thielman, President of Cristo Rey Boston High School

A Catholic high school in the center-city is counter-cultural by its very nature.  Yet even in an era when religion remains one of the Big 3 taboo subjects, young people and adults at Cristo Rey Boston High School freely explore their own faith, the faith of others, and even the absence of any faith in their personal lives.

Every student takes classes where they learn about the Old and New Testament, religions of the world, and ethics.  All students take part in at least one retreat a year, community-wide Masses are celebrated about once a month, and every day two Masses are offered by one of the four Roman Catholic priests who work at our school.

You heard correctly. Four priests from the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo work as teachers and administrators at our small school of 348 students.   The students gravitate to them. At our fall Community Day, a day of reflection, activities, and a cookout, our Campus Minister, Fr. Franco Soma, fscb, gave a beautiful talk to the students about gratitude. He spoke about how lucky he is to work at Cristo Rey Boston High School. One of my advisees, a junior named Chris Young, told me that it was the best speech he ever heard.

It is uplifting to walk through our hallways and see four priests and their lay colleagues of Catholic, Jewish and Protestant faiths joking, smiling, and encouraging our students.

The other day I was chatting with Nada Shaaban, one of our sophomores. She’s a Muslim who lives with her Mom and two siblings in Jamaica Plain.  I asked her why she decided to attend a Catholic school. “I came for a visit, and it just felt like the school for me,” she said.  “I like the attention we get from teachers. They are always encouraging me, they’re always very positive. And, I like learning about different religions.”

Shortly before my brief conversation with Nada, I gave a tour to a Jewish woman who is fascinated by our mission.  I took her to see a number of classes, including a class that was discussing Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.  She loved the discussion and waved me off on two occasions when I moved towards the door to escort her to another class.

In a world where faith can be exploited for political and personal gain and where schools do everything in their power to avoid any mention of the word God, Cristo Rey Boston High School is a place where a Jew can be fascinated by a class on Jesus, a Muslim student finds a home, and four young priests provide a rich presence to students and staff.  Despite our differences, we come together at Cristo Rey – a place where we boldly celebrate the reign of Christ the King.

Reflections on Cristo Rey Dress Code

I was recently in New York City and Bill Henson (President of Cristo Rey Brooklyn) was driving me through the Madison Square Garden district.  He remarked that twenty years ago that area was full of violence and drugs.  It was a No-Man’s Land.  I asked what had turned it around and Bill told me it was Mayor Giuliani’s famous Broken Window Policy.  Basically, that was the policy that some social psychologist devised founded on the belief that if you take care of the little things, like repairing broken windows, the big things like drugs and violence will take care of themselves.

How often do we hear that “the devil is in the details” and I think it is especially true in the case of the dress code we try to maintain at our Cristo Rey Network schools.  Frankly, I think it is one of those battles that will always be on-going; it takes constant reminding.  It’s a pain for those who have to be reminded and for those who do the reminding, too.  However, sometimes I have thought that maybe the dress code is the most important part of the culture of a Cristo Rey school.  From the time that our students are putting their socks on in the morning, they are remembering that they are very special people doing something very special with their lives.  The way a person is dressed says a lot about how professional that person is.  That’s simply the way it is in the professional world we are preparing our students to enter. 

I think it could be helpful to recall the origin of the dress code policy.  We wanted the school environment to be professional, to continue the idea that one is a professional all the time.  We even thought at one time about setting up the classrooms to resemble offices.  Everyone at a Cristo Rey school is always on the job, sometimes in a corporate office and other times in class.  They are always working professionally.  One of the reasons it is so difficult to maintain this spirit at our schools is that, as is so often true in our schools,  very definitely our goal is counter-cultural; today’s world certainly leans toward what is more casual.     

One of the most important factors is certainly the modeling that the adults in the school are providing. It is a constant battle that calls for our constant attention.  I think it is an important part of reminding people of how high we set the bar at our Cristo Rey Network schools and to be effective we have to have buy-in from everyone involved.  We don’t want to ask the students to do something the adults don’t do. To lead by example, all faculty and staff must be expected to model the professional dress required of our students.  And someone has to accept the responsibility of reminding the adults when they stray outside the following guidelines (a sample adult dress code from a Cristo Rey school):    


  • Suit, skirt or dress slacks
  • A collared, buttoned blouse with 3/4 or full-length sleeves (if a shirt or blouse does not have a collar, it must be accompanied by a blazer or dress jacket)
  • Dark, close-toed shoes with a back; socks or stockings
  • Female employees must model the same expectations required in the student dress code for hair, jewelry, piercings, make-up and nails.  Visible tattoos are not allowed.


  • Dress slacks (anything but jeans)
  • Dress shirt and tie with a closed collar
  • Dark dress shoes with dress socks
  • Male employees must model the same expectations required in the student dress code for hair, jewelry, piercings, and facial hair.  Visible tattoos are not allowed.

A professional’s dress and behavior have a powerful impact on relationships with students and colleagues.  Students look to the adults in their school as examples of how to dress and act in the professional world.  Therefore, it is important to model professionalism and respect for others with a neat, well-groomed appearance, dressing only in appropriate business attire.  Even when the students are dressed in a school uniform, the adults are still held to model what is expected in the professional world.

Hopefully, adult role-modeling in these matters can begin right when the person comes in to interview the first time for a job.  How they are dressed is an accurate indicator of how they view the culture we are trying to build up.  They certainly are not going to change for the better after they are working with us.  Our goal is to introduce these young people into a culture where they can succeed professionally and it takes a continuous team effort.  I would hope that on every Mission Effectiveness Review the visiting team might review the dress code as it is expressed in the Student Handbook as well as how well it is followed. 

I am writing this reminder now at the start of the new school year so that as the different administrative teams prepare their policies and handbooks they will make sure that clear expectations are spelled out for everyone at the school, reminding everyone involved that we are about creating a professional environment in our schools so that our young people will know how to act and what is expected of them.  Certainly no one likes to be “the corrector,” but someone has to keep the bar high.  It needs to be a real team effort where each and every adult feels that everyone is headed in the same direction, all for the good of our students.  “The devil is in the details” and this devil is not going away for a long time. 

Riding the Elevator

The Cristo Rey Network office is on the twelfth floor of a building which is owned by DePaul University here in Chicago.  Since there are a good number of classrooms on these floors we often ride up and down with the students.  On two different occasions in the recent past I have had two very positive experiences with the students.

The first was some weeks ago when the University redid the paneling in the elevators.  When we moved in here there was a sort of psychedelic stainless steel motif on the walls that was a bit dizzying to see.  The first reaction was to grab the handrail to steady yourself.  They decided to replace that paneling with something that made it look like mahogany, though it was still metal.  A student got in the elevator and commented “So that’s where my tuition goes.  This is a school after all and not a Madison Avenue office building.”  My first reaction was that I was back in Peru in the sixties.  People were quick to criticize any sort of waste of money.  I liked the fact that this young man was that sensitive to what might be considered over the top.  After all, downward mobility has to begin somewhere.  Maybe on an elevator.

The other occasion was when I was going down alone and the elevator stopped to let two students get on, a young man and a young woman.  I was obviously at the back of the car.  When we reached the ground floor the young man put his hand out to hold the door and let the young lady exit first.  Then he turned to me and my gray hair and motioned for me to go before him.  I said no, thanked him and said “after you.”  He came back saying, “I insist; after you.”  What a delight it was to come across a young man in today’s world that courteous and that anxious to let someone else go first.

I found hope on DePaul’s elevator.