Posts Tagged ‘Jesuit Father TJ Martinez’
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]
Jesuit Father TJ Martinez, president of Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School, was featured as one of four “new influencers” in Houston by local magazine, Papercity, in its April issue. The magazine noted the success of the new school in providing a top-notch education to the city’s underprivileged children through its innovative work-study program that pays the students’ tuitions. Fr. Martinez was praised for his ability to galvanize donors and corporations to support the school’s mission of providing a rigorous college preparatory track to Houston’s youth.
The section highlighting Fr. Martinez’s achievements appears below:
A decaying, abandoned school building in Houston’s gritty Southeast side and a young cowboy-boot-wearing priest might seem an unlikely stage and protagonist to reform Houston’s secondary-school system. Yet this script is successfully performed every day at Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School.
At its helm is the dynamic Jesuit Father TJ Martinez, founding president of Houston’s Cristo Rey, which is part of a national network of innovative Catholic high schools offering promise — and rigorous college prep — to the kids of urban America. In Houston, the Cristo Rey campus near Hobby Airport revived a Catholic high school that had closed due to shifting demographics and declining enrollment. Enter the recently ordained Fr. Martinez, a Boston transplant raised in South Texas who was tapped after receiving his Harvard degree not only to lead, but to forge the Houston branch.
The campus opened in August 2009, with its first class set to graduate in May 2013. It currently serves 270 students and is set to enroll grades 9 through 12 in the fall of 2012. The new school “relies on the private sector, not the government, to educate Houston’s youth who are living in poverty,” Fr. Martinez says. At the heart of Cristo Rey’s model are high-powered corporations — energy to finance, ConocoPhillips to Deutsche Bank — which pay the students’ tuition as part of an intriguing work-study program: Each Cristo Rey kid is employed one day a week by his or her sponsoring firm throughout the school year. The community has embraced the new college prep’s vision, with a lead gift of one million dollars from the Kinder Foundation and an inaugural gala in January 2011 that raised an astounding $1.6 million. Giving a tour of Cristo Rey’s gleaming hallways, then dropping in on a chemistry class where students enthusiastically cluster around lab experiments, Fr. Martinez emphasizes the power and primacy of his school’s mission: “Cristo Rey Jesuit marries Houston’s corporate culture with a college-prep culture serving children living in the most financially challenged neighborhoods, to form a partnership that will not only save the lives of these children, but [ensure] Houston’s future as well.”
Jesuit Father T.J. Martinez’s enthusiasm is hard to miss, especially when he’s talking about the school he founded, Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School of Houston. His devotion to the school, which opened for the 2009-10 school year, has experienced explosive growth. In one school year, it has grown from 60 to 160 kids and from 19 to 40 corporate sponsors for the work-study program. Additionally, $9 million dollars have been raised for the $10 million campaign that was launched just a year and a half ago.
Before his assignment to open Cristo Rey Jesuit, Fr. Martinez was busy on what he called his “Plan A” path. With a law degree already under his belt, he was newly ordained and finishing up a graduate program in school leadership at Harvard in 2008. From there he thought his first assignment would be working at Loyola University New Orleans Law School.
A call from his provincial changed that plan. Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, then provincial of the Society of Jesus’ New Orleans Province, told him a group in Houston had done a feasibility study to open a new Cristo Rey style school and asked if he’d be interested in heading it up.
Martinez told Fr. Kammer he wasn’t interested. “I just got ordained. I hadn’t even worked in a parish,” he remembers.
Kammer’s response: “Let me rephrase what I just said: Congratulations you are the new president of Cristo Rey Jesuit.”
Martinez’s orders were to graduate and then report to Houston to found and launch the school.
“I thought this was crazy,” he says. “This was my first assignment — to go start a Jesuit high school? No money, no faculty, no staff. Fr. Kammer told me, ‘The great news with all this is the only way you can go is up!’”
Luckily Martinez was used to adapting to “Plan Bs”. Growing up in South Texas, as the oldest son, he says his expected role was to join his father in business, in his case, by becoming a lawyer. But while in the middle of law school, Martinez describes his calling to a religious vocation: “One day I woke up during my second year in law school at 2 a.m. and said ‘I have to go to Mass.’ I went off to the Catholic Church and it felt amazing. The next day I was back at church with this almost desperate need to go to Mass. It woke up old thoughts from earlier on in my life of joining the priesthood.”
Martinez went on retreat with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, because he grew up with the Oblates in South Texas. They were his “Plan A” for religious life. So he was stunned when at the retreat’s end, the vocation director told him that he didn’t have a vocation for the Oblates — he was meant to be a Jesuit. Martinez was put in touch with the New Orleans Province vocation director, and, after finishing law school, he joined the Society of Jesus. “The pathway to God, in my experience, was all about following the crooked lines in the right way,” he says.
Just over ten years after joining the Jesuits, Martinez, newly ordained and with several graduate degrees under his belt, arrived in Houston to work with the feasibility study group putting together a plan of action for the new school. Then he hit the streets and talked about the school to anyone who would listen. He also sat down with the Cardinal to negotiate buying property and came away with nine acres that included an old school building, a gym and a football field.
“By buying that piece of property, we became the real deal. People started saying they’re really serious about starting a new high school in an era when the Catholic Church was closing schools, at a time when there was an economic recession and then Hurricane Ike hit the city,” says Martinez.
Martinez talked to anyone who would listen to him — any group, grandmother or corporate sponsor. He says, “We need everything and we need everybody. Door’s open; come in, no exclusivity; this school needs the city to survive. And people responded.”
Cristo Rey Jesuit opened its first school year in 2009 with 60 students, and Martinez oversaw an exciting first year that included a visit from First Lady Laura Bush. He began emailing Bush with the school’s progress each month until he got a call from Secret Service that she wanted to visit. Bush toured the school, talked to Martinez and students and gave a speech to 500 people attending a luncheon at the school, in which she called Cristo Rey “the sun that is now rising over the southeast side of Houston.”
Getting others, like Bush, excited about Cristo Rey Jesuit is one of Martinez’s favorite parts of the job. “I love being a cheerleader for the school and drum majoring that message to the rest of the city. It’s about galvanizing the troops and rallying people rather than speaking at people.”
He also loves interacting with the students. “When looking at numbers and finances and spending and fundraising and strategic planning gets too much for me, I put it all aside and I walk out my door, and I dive into the ocean of kids that are the favorite part of my day.”
Martinez has seen a number of positive changes in the students. He says they walk and talk more professionally, partly because of the corporate boot camp each takes part in to train for their five-day-a-month corporate job that helps pay their tuition, making the school affordable for low-income families. They’ve also dramatically improved academically.
The building also continues to be improved. Money from the capital campaign has been used to renovate the old facility a section at a time as money becomes available.
Now in the middle of its second school year, Martinez sees Cristo Rey Jesuit as more than just a school. Once the first capital campaign is complete, he plans to launch another, with dreams of having a health care center on the property to serve the surrounding neighborhood. He’s already in talks with Catholic Charities about partnering with the school for the clinic.
Also on his wish list is opening a Jesuit community near Cristo Rey Jesuit once the school graduates its first class. With a new community he could get more Jesuits involved at the school, he says.
His ultimate vision is a campus “that provides multiple services — education, guidance and health care — to the southeast side of Houston and becomes a beacon that could transform a neighborhood that is desperately looking for a symbol of hope in a place that hasn’t had that symbol in a long time.”
Jesuit Father TJ Martinez is well-loved, energetic and totally hip. Everything from his sleek pointed-toe cowboy boots, eye-catching belt buckle and occasional faux-hawk to his outgoing demeanor says “approachable.” He loves wandering the halls and joking with his students; a self-professed cheerleader, he loves to be right in the middle of everything – both the good and the bad. The zero-tolerance gang and cheating policies can put him in a difficult position, but at the end of the day, Fr. Martinez says he is the “luckiest Jesuit priest in the country.” You can read more about Fr. Martinez, president of Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston, and the success of the newly opened school for children from economically challenged families in 002Houston magazine.
As president of the newest Cristo Rey Jesuit high school in the country, Jesuit Father TJ Martinez is often asked to travel from his home base in Houston, Texas to places all over the globe for pastoral services and speaking engagements. So that Martinez can be in many places all at the same time, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Houston has launched a “Flat Fr. Martinez” project this summer so that the school president can also experience all the fun summertime activities his students have planned during their break.
A takeoff on the “Flat Stanley Project” where children document the places and activities the beloved paper doll encounters, “Flat Fr. Martinez” travels with his friends of Cristo Rey Jesuit this summer, and the school has been tracking his adventures on their website. Students have reported he’s been an ideal travel companion, but a little quiet.
To see some of the places “Flat Fr. Martinez” has visited this summer, view the photo sideshow below: