Jesuit Father Chris Devron says he has always been interested in start-ups and has an entrepreneurial personality. So it’s fitting that he’s president of Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School, the first all-new Catholic high school on Chicago’s West Side in more than 80 years.
Fr. Devron has come full circle in many ways. In 1995 he was a Jesuit novice in Chicago when he witnessed the beginning of the country’s first Cristo Rey school, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, while attending the press conference announcing that the Jesuits were starting the school.
He remembers being thrilled that the Society of Jesus would be open to something new. “My exposure to that point had been that we had schools that were long-established, and that we were struggling with diversification and becoming less and less affordable to lower-income families. To see there was this new model that would help kids and families [afford Jesuit education], that was really exciting to me,” he says.
Christ the King, which follows the Cristo Rey work-study model, opened at a temporary site with 120 students in 2008, and its brand new building opened in January 2010. An architecture critic at the Chicago Tribune said the new building’s “business-like image and its unrepentant sense of newness — a shock amid the tattered brick buildings around it — are both there by design, sending a message that the building marks a fresh start.”
Despite being in a low-income neighborhood, families can afford the private education Christ the King offers because of its work-study model in which students work five days a month at a corporation, helping them pay for their tuition. A few students share a full-time job at businesses such as U.S. Bank, Loyola Medical Center and even the Chicago Blackhawks.
Education had been Fr. Devron’s passion even before joining the Society, and it led him to his vocation. After attending Notre Dame as an undergrad, he taught in the Bronx. He thought he would teach for a year and then go to law school, but teaching put him in touch with his deeper desires.
“I began to wonder and pray and ask myself what it would be like if I were to continue teaching, but to do so as a priest ultimately,” he says.
When Fr. Devron returned to Notre Dame as a graduate student in theology, he met Jesuits there that helped him form a concrete picture of the Society, and he got in touch with the New York Province’s vocation director and entered in 1991.
Ten years later, Fr. Devron was ordained and his first assignment was setting up an outreach program for low-income middle-school students at Regis High School in New York. All the while, he continued to track the progress of Cristo Rey Jesuit High in Chicago and the Cristo Rey Network’s expansion to other cities. “It was always intriguing to me if this could be a model for African-American students. I always had that in the back of my mind,” he says.
As his assignment in New York was coming to an end, he got a call from the Jesuits in the Chicago Province explaining they were doing a feasibility study on the second Cristo Rey school in Chicago. It would be on the city’s West Side in the African-American community, and they asked him to be a part of it.
That’s how he landed back in Chicago in 2007 to prepare to open the new school and to construct a new building. He found himself faced with a major challenge: a skeptical community that had seen lots of people make promises that weren’t kept. The Jesuits’ promise was of a new school and a new building — a 100,000 square-foot school on a corner on the West Side of Chicago where there were decrepit buildings and drug dealing, in a neighborhood that used to have six Catholic high schools that had all closed.
Fr. Devron understood they had to win people over. “Even though the Society of Jesus has a 450-year tradition of educating young people, they [neighborhood residents] didn’t know that. I remember one woman said ‘Well, when I saw Jesuit on the sign, all I knew is that I wouldn’t be able to afford it,’ ” he recalls.
After moving to the new building in January 2010, Fr. Devron noted the buildings’ affect on the students. “I think that one of the things that we’re so gratified about is that having a building like this reinforces the high standards that we have for our students. The building itself teaches our students that they are valuable, they are worthy, they have dignity, and we saw when we moved over here that the students walked a little taller in this building.”
Now in its third school year, Christ the King has three classes and an enrollment of 280, with a capacity for about 600 students. The students are mostly African-American and only about 10 percent are Catholic, yet Fr. Devron says the students and their families appreciate the religious element of the school. “There are some new charter schools that have opened around here, and I think our competitive edge is that we are faith-based. In talking to the families, what they like about our school is that we have a community prayer life together, and students are encouraged to act on their faith and to be committed to Christian service,” Fr. Devron says.
He says one of his favorite parts of his job is hearing great things from employers about the students performing on the job, and that the work also exposes students to other cultures. “Our students are learning how to be intercultural — moving from the culture of their home and neighborhood to the culture of corporate life in America,” says Fr. Devron. “They have to be adaptable, and I think that’s a great skill that we can teach them because when they go to college there’s another level of adaptability they they’re going to have to embrace.”
Thinking back to when he learned about the first Cristo Rey school, he remembers “having this feeling that I’d love to stay in Chicago and see how this plays out and how it will work with the students having jobs. I have an entrepreneurial personality, and I liked that the Society could be entrepreneurial — that to me was a revelation.”