August 16, 2013 — Jesuit Father TJ Martinez was recently profiled by his hometown paper, The Brownsville Herald of Brownsville, Texas, about founding Cristo Rey Jesuit in southeast Houston. “Within 24 hours of graduating from Harvard [with an MA in educational leadership], I was on a plane from Boston to Houston,” Fr. Martinez recalled. “My first assignment as a new priest was to start this new school.”
Part of the Cristo Rey network of schools, the high school exclusively serves children living at or below the poverty line and charges no tuition, supported instead by donations and a work-study program in which students are employed at local corporations one day a week.
“We wanted to see if we could launch not just a Catholic high school but, more importantly, to at least begin a movement of Catholic education reform focused on children who are most in need. We started with nothing but a good idea,” said Fr. Martinez.
The school celebrated its success with its first graduation ceremony this past June. The entire first graduating class received scholarships, most covering full tuition and expenses, to some of the most prestigious schools in the country.
When the school was founded in 2009, Cristo Rey Jesuit relied heavily on donors in the city of Houston for financial assistance. However, Fr. Martinez also sought to “involve the community in the bigger concept. … We didn’t want just donors and corporate sponsors. We wanted them to become supporters so that they would take ownership of the movement.
“If we could turn someone who was being supported by the taxpayers into someone who contributed to our community,” achieving the goal would change Houston, said Fr. Martinez. “I was shocked that the support came from as many non-Catholics as Catholics. They realized that we could change the landscape. … It’s an investment.”
Cristo Rey Jesuit students participate in a work-study program that employs them in entry-level positions one day a week to earn the remainder of the tuition not covered by donations. According to Fr. Martinez, the jobs allow these students who have grown up in the toughest neighborhoods and come from the most broken families to re-imagine themselves as future business leaders and future family leaders.
“It’s almost like pressing a reset button on their minds,” Fr. Martinez said. “It ignites a positive potential, a ‘divine spark’ that I believe exists in every child.”
This fall, Fr. Martinez will travel to Kenya on a six-month mission to meet Jesuits who are considering opening a similar school in Nairobi. After his time abroad, Fr. Martinez will return to Cristo Rey Jesuit for another term as president. [The Brownsville Herald]