CHICAGO -- Waves of Slovenians, Bohemians, Irish, Italians and others have crested and receded, and today the Pilsen neighborhood of this polyglot city is a heartland Ellis Island, a port of entry for Mexican immigrants. There is a neighborhood school to teach their children important things -- math and history, of course, but also how to navigate a revolving door, how to behave in an elevator, and how to identify the salad fork and the soupspoon.
From Cristo Rey Jesuit High School you can see the Sears Tower to the north, where some students work. All the students work somewhere -- at more than 100 companies and law firms -- one day a week, at jobs paying $20 an hour, the money going directly to the school, covering 70 percent of its costs.
To work in the Sears Tower, a student must pass through something perhaps not encountered in his or her family's Mexican village or in Pilsen -- a revolving door -- and might have to change elevators en route to the Tower's upper floors. Before going to work, many of the school's 14-year-old ninth-graders, like their parents, have never been downtown.
The summer before beginning at CRJHS, ninth-graders go to a behavioral boot camp where they get what David Whitman calls "a dose of cultural imperialism" to inculcate bourgeoisie values, from personal hygiene to table manners. The school believes that some Latino traditions should be tempered: Many of the students had been raised to show respect by speaking quietly and avoiding eye contact while softly shaking hands. That is not how things are done downtown in the city of broad shoulders. Before long, the children are introducing themselves with firm handshakes, and are introducing their parents to the Loop.
Cristo Rey is one of six "no excuses" schools around the nation that Whitman examined in a new book, "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism." James Gartland, SJ, now CRJHS' president, was back in America on a break from his work in Peru when he was assigned to walk Pilsen's streets and discover how the church might serve. He asked people "What do you dream?" and "Why did you leave Mexico?" The answers pointed to what CRJHS has become.
It began in 1996 with 79 students meeting in the four corners of a roller-skating rink. Today the 540 students -- most from two-parent families with an average of five members and an income of $38,000 -- enjoy an old parish school, refurbished and expanded. About one-third of those admitted to the ninth grade do not graduate, half because they cannot cope academically, others because they chafe under CRJHS' three hours of homework a night and its strict dress and discipline codes.