How the Jesuits and the Christian Brothers are bringing Catholic education back to Oakland

It is 8 a.m. on a cloudy November morning, and a group of sleepy-eyed high school students in Oakland, Calif., is getting a pep talk. Located in a stucco building showing some signs of age, on a leafy side street and tucked behind an imposingly large church, their school might be just one of many urban high schools in struggling cities, full of kids still trying to wake up. But these 14- and 15-year-olds are not being lectured to about homework or study skills; instead, a young business coach in a suit and tie is reminding them not to use their phones in the office. Outside, vans are arriving to take the students from Cristo Rey De la Salle East Bay High School to their work-study jobs, all located in the offices of local corporations and colleges.

Like all the other 37 Cristo Rey schools in the United States, Cristo Rey De la Salle in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood is focused on educating low-income students. Many students who attend Cristo Rey schools come from underperforming and underfunded schools and arrive in high school academically disadvantaged as a result. One day a week, each student works in a corporate office in a job-sharing program that offsets 50 percent of their tuition costs and helps them gain job skills on top of their accelerated academic work.

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Like all the other 37 Cristo Rey schools in the United States, Cristo Rey De la Salle in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood is focused on educating low-income students.

But as one of the newest Cristo Rey schools, Cristo Rey De la Salle is growing from the ashes of a school closed by the Diocese of Oakland just three years ago. It is growing with the help of groups of low-income students of color who face multiple challenges every day, and it is growing with the guiding charism of the La Salle Christian Brothers, a religious order exclusively committed to education, along with their Lasallian lay colleagues. And it is growing in a city where the relationships between faith, education and business are often uneasy.

Since the founding of the first Cristo Rey school by John Foley, S.J., in Chicago in 1996, Cristo Rey schools have become a national network with multiple religious orders as sponsors. The Brothers of the Christian Schools, also known as the De La Salle Brothers or Lasallians after their founder, St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, were already sponsoring two Cristo Rey schools in Tucson, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., and thus were natural partners for Oakland’s first Cristo Rey school. The charism of the brothers is to serve the poor through education; and since they run several area high schools and St. Mary’s College, they are embedded in the fabric of Catholic families throughout the Bay Area. (Full disclosure: I am a second-generation alum of St. Mary’s College, which my father and sister also attended, and my brother attended St. Mary’s High School; so the Christian Brothers have educated a large portion of my family).

Chris Trinidad, the vice principal of Cristo Rey De La Salle, who has a background in liturgy and liturgical music as well as education and studied at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, came to the school from a position at St. Mary’s High School in Berkeley, so he was already familiar with the Lasallian charism. Mr. Trinidad also completed a three-year course at the Buttimer Institute for Lasallian Studies at St. Mary’s College. In the hallways at Cristo Rey De la Salle, the five core Lasallian principles are displayed on large posters: concern for the poor and social justice, faith in the presence of God, quality education, respect for all persons and inclusive community.

Chris Trinidad, the vice president of Cristo Rey De la Salle, came to the school from a position at St. Mary’s High School in Berkeley (photo: Sage Baggott).
Chris Trinidad, the vice principal of Cristo Rey De la Salle, came to the school from a position at St. Mary’s High School in Berkeley (photo: Sage Baggott).

Mr. Trinidad says that while the Jesuit charism and the Lasallian charism are similar, the Christan Brothers bring an added dimension to their ministry to students. Lasallians, according to Mr. Trinidad, “believe that before we can teach the mind we have to touch the heart.” Mr. Trinidad adds that “guiding students, honoring and ‘seeing’ Jesus in the students entrusted to our care is at the heart of what it means to be Lasallian.”

George Van Grieken, F.S.C., the coordinator of Lasallian research and resources at the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Rome, also says the Jesuit and Lasallian charisms are similar when it comes to ideas about education. But there are some notable differences. The Rule the Christian Brothers live by is specifically focused on education, and because they are not ordained priests, they do not practice sacramental ministry but instead dedicate themselves fully to education. According to Brother Van Grieken, “the Lasallian charism has the school as it setting, the teacher as its focus and the salvific potential of education as its inspiration.” While education is also a significant focus of Jesuit ministry, Jesuits are engaged in every imaginable field of work, it seems, whereas every Lasallian is first and foremost an educator.

Lasallians, according to Mr. Trinidad, “believe that before we can teach the mind we have to touch the heart.”

Given the poverty and social stresses experienced by students living in Fruitvale, the Lasallian charism makes perfect sense as a framework for their education. But as recently as 2016, when the local Catholic high school, which had been open for nearly a century, closed because of low enrollment, many people in Fruitvale assumed that the era of having a Catholic high school in their neighborhood was over.

Narratives of Tragedy and Struggle

Like many working-class neighborhoods in smaller cities, Fruitvale has rarely made the news. The neighborhood is named for the fruit orchards that spread across the Bay Area in the 20th century, which were mostly tended by immigrant families from Europe. As waves of black and Latino people moved to California during World War II to work in the local shipyards, many of them settled in Fruitvale. A few years after the war, the construction of the Nimitz Freeway through West Oakland meant many working class families’ homes there were bulldozed, which pushed even more black and Latino families out of that area and into Fruitvale, on the east side of town. Because redlining was a common practice in Oakland, it was illegal for people of color to buy homes in many parts of town. Fruitvale was one of the exceptions.

Fruitvale made the national news on New Year’s Eve in 2008, when Oscar Grant was shot to death by transit police. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, the neighborhood became a home for the burgeoning Chicano rights movement, with Cesar Chavez a frequent visitor. The La Raza Unida Party, the Brown Berets and the Clínica de la Raza were all based in Fruitvale. Reflecting Fruitvale’s demographic shifts, its Catholic churches today have Masses in Spanish, Tagalog, Portugese, Korean, Cantonese, Kmhmu (Laotian), Vietnamese and Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopia. But the neighborhood has increasingly experienced crime and neglect from the city government, with potholes, broken streetlights, understaffed schools, drug dealers and gangs increasingly becoming problems throughout the area.

Fruitvale made the national news on New Year’s Eve in 2008, when Oscar Grant, a resident of the neighborhood, was called a racial slur, punched in the face and shot to death by transit police at the neighborhood train station. Fruitvale gained national attention again when 36 people died in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in 2016, just a few blocks from the same station. The neighborhood, a vibrant home to thousands, was scarred by narratives of tragedy and struggle.

The Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland is a vibrant home to thousands, but it has been scarred by narratives of tragedy and struggle (photo: Sage Baggott).
The Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland is a vibrant home to thousands, but it has been scarred by narratives of tragedy and struggle (photo: Sage Baggott).

The memories of those two tragedies have not been erased, and the Cristo Rey De La Salle school is located just blocks from both sites. The Ghost Ship warehouse sits empty, a condemned building where people still come to leave flowers and votive candles. A mural depicting a smiling Grant now appears on the side of the train station where he was shot, and a street in front of the station has been named for him.

Fruitvale is a new target for developers in the hyper-gentrifying Bay Area.

And even while it struggles with the ghosts of those incidents, Fruitvale is a new target for developers in the hyper-gentrifying Bay Area, who are installing high speed bus lines to attract tech workers to the neighborhood and building condos as fast as they can. These new buildings appear crammed in among businesses with signage mostly in Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. But for the neighborhood’s economically disadvantaged families, those tech jobs and brand new condos and the paths that lead to them might as well be on Mars.

The Birth of a New School

With the cost of living throughout California skyrocketing, many parents have had to make decisions about the cost of their children’s education. In 2016, as the result of precipitous drops in enrollment and the resulting inability to pay teachers, in addition to the diocese being over one hundred million dollars in debt, Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland made the announcement that the diocese was closing six Catholic schools in Oakland. Bishop Barber stated that these closures were necessary to stop the financial “hemorrhaging” caused by a decline in students, which was causing “something of a death spiral for many of our schools.” Five were elementary schools, and one, St. Elizabeth’s, was a high school that had educated the children of Fruitvale for nearly 100 years.

The closure of Catholic schools is not a new phenomenon, but it has accelerated in recent years. The National Catholic Educational Association reports that between 2009 and 2019, about 1200 Catholic schools closed nationwide. Urban Catholic schools in particular are struggling to stay open, and their enrollment has declined by nearly 30 percent nationwide. These urban closures have been exacerbated by multiple factors, including the the national financial crisis of 2008 and the overall shrinking number of Catholics in the United States.

The closure of Catholic schools is not a new phenomenon, but it has accelerated in recent years.

Competition from charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, has also contributed to Catholic school closures. In spite of the growing backlash against charter schools, in cities like Oakland, where public schools have been marked by decades of dysfunction, charters are still more attractive to many working-class and poor parents than Catholic schools because of the cost of tuition.

According to Chris Trinidad, when the closure of St. Elizabeth High School was announced by the diocese in 2016, the Cristo Rey network began a feasibility study to see if the building might become the home to the next Cristo Rey school. Thus, within a year of St. Elizabeth’s closure, Cristo Rey De La Salle was able to open for a “fallow year”—that is, a year during which the operations of the previous school are closed (St. Elizabeth’s students were offered transfer to any of the diocese’s other high schools) and planning for the new school can begin. Cristo Rey De La Salle officially opened in 2018 with a first-year class of 69 students.

In Oakland, 100 percent of students at Cristo Rey De La Salle are also students of color.

To qualify for enrollment, students must be from families that make less than 75 percent of the local median income, but most students come from families that make less than 35 percent of that amouont. In Oakland, that is about $26,000 a year, well below the local poverty line for a family of four. With work study and sliding scale tuition, most families pay about $1,000 a year in tuition. The model puts a private school education within range for people who normally could not afford it.

In Oakland, 100 percent of students at Cristo Rey De La Salle are also students of color, according to Jennifer Costello, the director of wholeness at the school. Ms. Costello, a licensed clinical social worker with a background in public school counseling, wanted to return to working in Catholic schools, where she herself had been educated, and saw the opportunity to help staff a brand-new school as a unique one. The student population also matched with her background in trauma counseling. Almost all the students at Cristo Rey De La Salle, according to Ms. Costello, have experienced some sort of trauma, whether from family separation at the border, addiction and incarceration in their families, abuse, having to provide child care for younger siblings or the daily grind of living in poverty in the shadow of one of the world’s most expensive cities. Thus the school and Ms. Costello emphasize the idea of wholeness, and of dealing with stress management, time management and building student self-confidence. The Cristo Rey model of education, for all it gives, also “asks a lot of students,” she says, and Ms. Costello’s office sees a steady stream of them throughout the day, dropping in to talk, get help, vent and strategize.

A Chance to Work

Mr. Trinidad arranged a meeting with three students, and after navigating the school’s bustling halls, we sat around a meeting table during their free period. Zach, Vika and Gigi are all sophomores, wearing the school uniform of sweater and tie. At a school that is just midway through its second year of operation, being sophomores gives them the authority of seniors, and each had a maturity and thoughtfulness that reflected this. All three of them said that what attracted them to the school was the opportunity to work.

All three students said that what attracted them to the school was the opportunity to work.

Zach, who transferred from another Catholic high school, says that the work program “gives you the experience of having to get up in the morning and get prepared for work.” Zach described his day at his corporate office as a hectic one: “I had to download over 260 files, and then I had to work on a graphic design for the company, and did all that in five hours.” “Dang!” he added, to laughs from everyone. In contrast to school, he says, work provides a sense of independence and freedom. Vika said she likes being around adults all day, where she learns “responsibility and independence, and learning to do things on my own.” And Gigi added that at work, “people don’t really think I’m 15. They think I’m an adult, which is kind of nice because it shows how mature you are.” She quickly added, “it’s nice to be an adult part time, but not full time,” to more laughs.

Dayanara, Natalie and Luisa are currently students at Cristo Rey De La Salle (photo: Sage Baggott).
Dayanara, Natalie and Luisa are currently students at Cristo Rey De La Salle (photo: Sage Baggott).

All three also mentioned that they had applied to Cristo Rey De La Salle because it was a new school. “We can mold the school into what we want the school to be,” Zach said. For these students that means finding a way to balance corporate job, school work and the community service work that Mr. Trinidad says the school wants to make an intrinsic part of the student experience. And all three of them have visions of how the school can grow.

Vika recently started a cultural appreciation club. Zach mentioned wanting more sports. And Gigi said she could already feel the school growing and changing. “Last year was kind of a testing year. And as we get older, there’ll be more dances and more sports, and a lot more jobs.” Mr. Trinidad says one way the school is trying to avoid the social hierarchy of class year is by creating what the school calls the Casa system, through which the students are sorted into houses similar to the model used in the Harry Potter books. Each Casa has a patron saint, including St. John Baptiste de La Salle (for the Christian Brothers), St. Elizabeth of Hungary (to honor the school’s history), St. Kateri Tekakwitha (to honor First Nations peoples) and St. Oscar Romero (for social justice and the Americas). This system mixes students from different classes together to help build friendships between students of different ages.

Another dimension of the Cristo Rey model involves building relationships with the local business community, which can be viewed with some suspicion by people in Oakland.

When I asked the students how the Cristo Rey model of working would serve them in college, Gigi brought up maturity again. She had worked full time over the summer, and her boss told her that most of the teens in the office “just look at their feet and are very shy.” Talking to Cristo Rey students, in contrast, “was like talking to adults; it’s like talking to your friend,” her boss said. Zach says he has learned computer skills in the office and now wants to be a graphic designer. Vika says, “I love math; I enjoy numbers” and is thinking of pursuing work in STEM or business.

All three of them say that they feel a big difference between their situation and that of friends at other high schools in terms of the support they get. “We have mentors every day,” Gigi explains about the volunteers who work with the students, “and they help us get things organized.” The mentors help with assignments, organizing calendars and study strategies. Zach says having supportive teachers who have gone through some of the same life challenges as the kids (the teaching staff is deliberately ethnically diverse, and many are from the Bay Area) helps as well.

Mr. Trinidad admits that it can be difficult to attract and retain teachers at a new school. The difficulty of offering competitive salaries is one reason for this, but the danger of burnout is another, something he is aware is a risk for himself as well. Spiritual care for students is mostly in the hands of staff and teachers. The school has a part-time campus minister, who also teaches Catholic studies full time; and the campus is adjacent to the large, busy parish of St. Elizabeth’s as well as to St. Elizabeth’s elementary school.

When I visited, one of the Christian Brothers was volunteering at the front desk, greeting and talking with students; another was visiting and sitting in on classes. A recent college grad working full-time as a Lasallian volunteer (a program similar to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps) showed me around a classroom where the archives from St. Elizabeth’s school have been made into a kind of mini-museum, where alumni and visitors can learn about the history of the school and the neighborhood. Reflecting the larger history of Catholic schools in the United States and demographic shifts in the Bay Area, the class photos on the walls went from all white through most of the 20th century until the 1970s to exclusively students of color ever since.

Another dimension of the Cristo Rey model involves building relationships with the local business community, which can be viewed with some suspicion by people in Oakland who are experiencing the effects of gentrification. But students do not just get tuition remittance from working; they also receive mentoring from corporate partners and the chance to build relationships in the business world, which gives them an advantage over many of their peers. Corporate partners, in turn, get to work with students who come from backgrounds vastly different from those of many typical white collar workers. “Our desire for our students,” Mr. Trinidad says, “is for them to go out into the world and make a difference.” But in the challenging class divisions of the Bay Area, working with local corporate partners based in Oakland also means the students also have a chance to “make a difference in their own communities” and give something back to the city as well.

Everyone at Cristo Rey De La Salle talked about their visions for the school’s future: higher enrollments, recruiting students, growing corporate partnerships and building bridges between the school and the city. But even in its beginning years, the school already feels like a home. At lunch, students sat together with teachers and staff around tables in a courtyard, and I recalled what a Dominican sister who lives in Fruitvale once told me about the neighborhood. She had come there because she saw beyond the crime and graffiti and neglect to the people who lived there and the families who sent their children to school there. “To me,” she said, “Fruitvale is the kingdom of God.”

Correction, March 9: Chris Trinidad is the vice principal of Cristo Rey De La Salle. Due to an editing error, this article originally misidentified him as the vice president.

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