The parking lot behind Saint Martin de Porres High School could pass for an airport taxi stand. By 8 a.m., dozens of cabs, vans, and shuttles are lined up to take students from the celebrated Catholic school to jobs where they earn most of their private-school tuition.
School president Rich Clark likes to say that Saint Martin, one of twenty-six schools in the national Cristo Rey Network, is an “exclusive club.”
“If you can afford the tuition,” he often quips, “then you can’t come.”
To attend Saint Martin, a family’s income must be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level—give or take a bit. Most applicants are also a year or two behind academically and, if a student is not committed to catching up, he or she is asked to leave.
Most of Saint Martin’s 424 students are eligible for vouchers under one of two state-sponsored voucher programs: the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program and the statewide EdChoice Scholarship program.
Enacted in 1995, when George Voinovich was governor, the Cleveland program today offers eligible students up to $4,250 for tuition to attend a private elementary school and up to $5,700 for private high-school tuition.
First as mayor and then as governor, Voinovich was a vocal critic of the academic performance of Cleveland’s public schools. He contended that competition from vouchers would force education reform in his hometown.
The Cleveland-only program was vigorously challenged, with the U.S. Supreme Court deciding on a five-to-four vote in 2002 that it was constitutional. The New York Times called the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision “the most important ruling on religion and the schools” in four decades.
Then in 2006, the statewide EdChoice program was created. It allows students living anywhere in Ohio to apply for a voucher to attend private school if they’ve been slated to a failing public school.
About one-third of Saint Martin’s $6.6 million annual budget comes from the two voucher programs, putting the school in a unique category among schools in Ohio with a high percentage of voucher students: unlike other such schools, the state does not pay the bulk of Saint Martin’s bills.
The largest share of the almost $15,000 that Saint Martin spends per student comes from what students earn working five days per month.
Cristo Rey, whose founders believe that they’ve developed a sustainable business model for private high schools, has also opened schools in Cincinnati and Columbus.
To employers, Saint Martin, which is on Cleveland’s East Side in a historically Slovenian neighborhood, sells itself as a temp agency. For $28,100, a business “purchases” one full-time-equivalent student employee for the school year. Four students share that entry-level job, with one individual at the work site each day. (Students rotate working Mondays.)
Because Saint Martin has an extended day and school year, students don’t lose instruction time.
The infectiously enthusiastic Clark, who was Saint Martin’s founding president and formerly a principal at the renowned Saint Ignatius High School, tells potential employers that he can offer them something other temp agencies can’t: “We can call their mothers,” he said.
Administrators said that students are rarely fired from their jobs, though it does happen. Employers receive an orientation to the Saint Martin program and a handbook laying out the school’s expectations for students.
Because the school does not have not enough “paying” jobs for every student and to ensure that every student is employed, some are assigned at no charge to non-profits willing to work with a student. The Cleveland Clinic this year “bought” twelve jobs, making it Saint Martin’s single-largest employer of students.
Leslie Berdecia works with four Saint Martin students who are given administrative tasks at the Center for Spine Health at the Clinic.
“They all have different maturity levels,” Berdecia said, “but I think that they do pretty well. They ask questions when they need to….We are trusting them to do the jobs we ask them to do without hand-holding them every day.”
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Keith Laschinger, the vice president of advancement, said that under the Cristo Rey work-study business model, vouchers may not become the school’s dominant source of funding. The goal is to grow the school to 524 students, at which point work-study revenue would account for 51 percent of the school’s budget.
Salaries for starting teachers closely match those in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, although benefits are not as generous. The school has sixty-one full-time employees, plus part-timers and volunteers.
Now in its tenth year, Saint Martin measures its success in part by how many alums complete college. The goal is for 70 percent of graduates to earn a degree within seven years. Nine of the fifty seniors from the 2008 class have earned degrees, and Clark said more from that group are on track to do so.
The 2013 senior class grew to sixty-five, while there are ninety-eight seniors this year.
Besides voucher students from Cleveland, Saint Martin also enrolls pupils from four nearby school districts who are also eligible for vouchers under the statewide program.
Monica Lawson, Saint Martin’s admissions director, said that current and former students are her best recruiting tools. She visits eighth-grade classes and high-school nights at middle schools, inviting rising high schoolers to shadow Saint Martin upperclassmen. Once the younger students visit, Lawson said, they go home and push their parents to allow them to attend Saint Martin.
What typically excites them is the opportunity to have a job.
Lawson said parents are grateful for the voucher program, but too many don’t accept their responsibilities under it. The school has to pester families, for instance, to sign their child’s voucher checks that come to the school from the state (and are made out to the parent) three times each year.
“We shouldn’t have to make twenty phone calls before you sign it,” Lawson said.
When asked what the state could do to make the voucher programs better, Lawson said she’s perplexed why fathers who have custody of a child have difficulty getting a voucher.
“If Mom signs, it’s processed,” Lawson said. “It’s not equal for biological dads.”
A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education said that, by law, only a child’s legal guardian may apply for a voucher. But guardians may not always have physical custody of a child or be in charge of decisions about schooling.
Moreover, in families where there’s a shared-parenting agreement, the child must be assigned to live with the parent whose address would result in him or her being assigned to a so-called “failing” school.
Nor are all vouchers created equal. High-school students living in the city of Cleveland get $5,700 (up from $5,000 in 2012–13), while students living outside the city and enrolling under EdChoice receive $5,000.
Voucher proponents in Cleveland and elsewhere insist that $5,000 doesn’t nearly cover the cost of educating a high-school student.
Meanwhile, parents have trouble keeping up with the nuances of Ohio’s voucher programs.
This is the second year that students living in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District have been able to apply for a voucher to attend a private high school such as Saint Martin if they were attended a Cleveland public school in eighth grade. Previously, vouchers under the Cleveland program were only available to private-school students who had chosen to leave the public schools and obtain a voucher by the eighth grade.
That change has resulted in an influx of students from Cleveland public schools who have never attended a private school and who are outrageously behind, some staff members said.
“We definitely saw differences in expectations,” Lawson said, with the new Cleveland public students.
Lawson said she was “shocked” that some parents were irritated when Saint Martin teachers would contact them about a child’s misbehavior or academic difficulties.
Laschinger has a different take, one shared by school president Clark. He doesn’t agree that children coming out of Cleveland’s Catholic schools are typically better prepared than those who’ve attended Cleveland public schools.
“I think some of the Catholic schools are just as bad as the public schools,” Laschinger said. “They’re woefully underfunded.”
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A’bria Robinson, a high-school junior, said the work experience she’s getting by attending Saint Martin de Porres “makes my resume beautiful.” She has worked for three businesses, including a call center that was an hour-long ride from Saint Martin her freshman year.
“I learned a lot of customer-service skills,” she said. “I was selling a product.” At first, she said, she worried about being treated “like a child.” “That’s when I had to prove myself.”
Pressed about what she doesn’t like about Saint Martin, A’bria, who is aware that she has received a Cleveland voucher since she was in Kindergarten, said she was upset that nineteen staff members left the school last year.
“It’s been hard to build new relationships,” she said. “But I love to network. I’m all about networking. Maybe it was a good thing in disguise.”
In addition to an unusual burst of faculty turnover last spring, an unusually high number of students—about forty—were told they could not come back in the fall.
Teachers and administrators alike agree that the school struggled in 2012–13. They said too many second and third chances were being given to students who were not meeting expectations, and rules were being unevenly enforced or ignored.
“The culture wasn’t what we wanted it to be,” Laschinger said. In addition, enrollment was affected because not all parents and prospective students were coming away impressed and choosing to enroll. The Fall 2014 freshman class is 118 students, while the goal was 150.
“We needed to re-commit that this is a college-preparatory school,” Laschinger said. “We needed to re-dedicate ourselves to taking care of our people….You walk through the building today, and it’s like night and day” compared to last year, he said.
Students are aware that expectations are high and that they will not be allowed to coast.
Lawson, the admissions director, said the kids often preface their complaints about homework or grading policies by saying, “If this were a real school…”
J. Michael Gerstenberger, who teaches American history, has heard that line. One disgruntled sophomore argued as Gerstenberger was handing back a quiz in September: “If this was a normal school, this would be a C.”
“Gigi” Gonzalez, most of whose friends attend Cleveland public schools, said her mother “makes it a priority” that she and her sister, who is a freshman at Saint Martin, renew their Cleveland voucher requests each year.
“She makes a point to tell me to be grateful for what I have. If I weren’t here, I wouldn’t be as good as I am,” she said.
Sixteen-year-old Jack Klucznik said he came to Saint Martin because it was “affordable” and “no one judges you here.”
He’s working for a second year at WadeTrim, a civil-engineering firm, where he does office work. “They let me do whatever they think I’m capable of,” said Jack, who calls Ohio State University his “dream college.”
One of Saint Martin’s few Caucasian students, Jack doesn’t feel like other students are particularly mindful of his race. “It’s like I’m not even white,” he said.
Ambernieke Greene rides fifty minutes, which includes dropping off other students at work sites, to her job at St. John Medical Center, where she puts treatment orders into a database, transports patients, and answers phones. Now in her second year there, the junior hopes to attend Case Western Reserve and become a forensic scientist.
She likes Saint Martin, she said, because “teachers want to help you.” A student who “wants to socialize all the time” and who “doesn’t like homework” wouldn’t enjoy the school.
Elizabeth Sims, 62, is Ambernieke’s great aunt and adoptive mother. Sims, who lives in Cleveland near two public schools, said that she worried from the time that Ambernieke was three years old: “Where would I put her?” She was unhappy with the education that her two now-adult sons received in Cleveland, and for a time, she considered homeschooling Ambernieke.
“I encourage other people to apply,” Sims said. “The voucher program has saved us.” Though she would like to buy a smaller home, Sims, who is retired, said she would not move out of Cleveland to a district where Ambernieke would not be eligible for a voucher.
Clark admits that Saint Martin is performing a form of social “triage,” working only with children and families who are willing to abide by its rules and who can imagine a future that includes succeeding in school and going to college.
“I lose sleep over every kid who does not graduate from here,” the president said. “The first time we had a kid leave, Mary Ann [Vogel, the founding principal] and I closed the door to her office and we cried like babies. We thought we were going to save everybody.”
But Clark is unapologetic about telling students who aren’t willing to do their work—whether at school or on the job—that they can’t stay.
“They have to go somewhere else,” he said. “If you lose your culture, you lose your school. This school is for kids who want to be here.”
This case study is drawn from Pluck and Tenacity: How five private schools in Ohio have adapted to vouchers, by Ellen Belcher, published by the Fordham Institute earlier this year. Another case study, of Immaculate Conception School, can be found here.