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Lessons from Cristo Rey

Their college students beat the nation by 300%

If you’re a graduate of Cristo Rey in Kansas City, you can be sure Sister Linda Ross has her eye on you. As the alumni director at the high school, she helps low-income students transition to and stay in college. She has a big job: In Cristo Rey’s first 10 years, 100 percent of graduates have gone to college, which means Sister Linda is tracking and supporting nearly 400 alumni.

Her flock faces enormous challenges: homelessness, cash shortages for books and meals, and remedial classes that can stretch a two-year program to a frustrating three-and-a-half years. These problems can derail even the most motivated students, which is why, nationwide, fewer than 20 percent of low-income students who start college actually complete a degree.

Among Sister Linda’s current concerns: one girl who suddenly turned down the chance to go to a four-year college. Why? Because she didn’t have transportation. She also didn’t have a home until her sister took her in. The girl chose a more accessible community college, which can be a hard slog without the social structure typical of four-year institutions. “But she’s on my radar,” says Sister Linda. “We meet once a month. I think she’ll be fine.”

Besides advice and support, the alumni program offers emergency cash assistance and help finding and keeping scholarships. It works. Nearly 63 percent of Cristo Rey’s alumni have graduated college or are in school now.

One of those college graduates spoke at the 2016 graduation. Mone’kai Shannon-Thornton told Cristo Rey’s seniors to always say “yes” to new things, to embrace college as a new beginning, and to avoid comparing oneself to others—wise and inspiring words. Still,

Sister Linda isn’t quite satisfied. “Sixty-three percent is not as high as I’d like it to be. We want 100 percent,” she says.