Learning Through Chaos

Innovative St. Thomas-Cristo Rey service program helps students move beyond stereotypes and privilege

Professor Tom Connery stood in the middle of Learning Garage No. 2 at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and surveyed the chaos. Ninety University of St. Thomas and Cristo Rey students were jammed into the room, chattering away and paying absolutely no attention to him.

When the noise subsided, Connery took a deep breath and shouted, “Okay, so what do you want to do with this newspaper?”

Blank stares.

“We’re going to look for connections here,” he said. “And ideas… we need ideas.”

And just like that, hands shot up and students offered suggestions on what should be in a Cristo Rey newspaper: A student-of-the-month profile. A teacher spotlight. A “Shout Out” section in which students would salute each other. A “Pride and Joy” feature to highlight a student’s special talent. An entertainment section with reviews on new CDs and movies. Comics drawn by students – one had a certain teacher in mind, “but not to be mean; just fun and silly.”

Connery deftly handled the students, prodding them to speak and probing for details. “An advice column?” he responded to one suggestion. “Who’s going to give the advice? And about what?”

"Cristo Rey is different from St. Thomas.  Way different. That’s good ... " - Carol Bruess, UST COJO professor

At the end of 20 minutes, Connery congratulated the group. A newspaper had been planned, albeit quite loosely, and everyone had a smile on his or her face. You could almost see the thoughts whirring through their minds: “So this is what we’re supposed to be doing here!”

Every new program has a defining moment – one that tells leaders and participants that yes, this possibly crazy idea will work. That mid-November brainstorming session at Cristo Rey was a defining moment in a novel and ambitious collaboration between mostly white students from a 124-year-old university firmly rooted in the community and students of color at a fledgling two-year-old high school in a struggling neighborhood.

The Cristo Rey project is part of COJO 111: Communication & Citizenship, a new foundational course in the Department of Communication and Journalism. St. Thomas faculty created the course in 2007 to emphasize relationships between all kinds of communication (interpersonal, intercultural, organizational, rhetorical and mass media) and to foster a commitment to informed and active citizenship. Three themes were introduced: that communication is fundamental to human identity, builds community and citizenship, and advances the common good.

One component of COJO 111 is a service-learning project in which students “contribute to the community while gaining knowledge relevant to their academic and professional lives,” according to the syllabus. “In other words, when we take our learning out into the community, we put our skills into practice.”

So on nine occasions during the fall semester, 135 St. Thomas students boarded buses and rode down Lake Street to Cristo Rey to spend an hour with the 145 freshmen and sophomores there.

St. Thomas wanted to collaborate with Cristo Rey for several reasons: it’s new, it’s college prep, it’s Catholic, it’s easy to get to from the St. Paul campus and, most importantly, its population is incredibly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

“Cristo Rey is different from St. Thomas,” said Dr. Carol Bruess, the project’s co-leader, who team-taught the course with Connery and Drs. Wendy Wyatt and Kris Bunton. “Way different. That’s good – for our students and for their students. They learn from each other.

Bruess is a passionate believer in service learning as a teaching strategy. She first used it in an intercultural communications course at Hamline University before moving to St. Thomas in 1998. The idea of having COJO 111 students travel to Cristo Rey last fall came out of Bruess’ 2008 January Term Public Speaking class, in which 22 St. Thomas students worked with students in a Cristo Rey English course. The St. Thomas students gave persuasive/motivational speeches on their college journeys to a Cristo Rey audience.

Bruess felt St. Thomas had a “perfect partner” in Cristo Rey. She called principal Kris Melloy (see profile) and Jeb Myers, assistant principal for academics and project co-leader, and asked, “Could you handle 160 St. Thomas students? They said, ‘Absolutely! Fabulous. Let’s do it.’”

The planning team brainstormed projects and settled on three for the fall semester: a newspaper, a yearbook and a “campus connections” program to better inform Cristo Rey students about higher education opportunities. Fifteen groups typically made up of three St. Thomas and three Cristo Rey students worked on each of the three projects during the nine trips.

During the first trip, on Sept. 11, St. Thomas students gathered in the Cristo Rey auditorium for a pep talk from Bruess, Melloy and Myers.

“Welcome to our mission,” said Myers, who explained that most of his students wouldn’t graduate from high school and attend college if not in a structured setting such as Cristo Rey. “You are our positive peer pressure.”

“Our students will be better for working with you, and you will be better for working with them,” Melloy said, and Myers reiterated her point: “We want our students to mentor you, too.”

The first small group sessions with Cristo Rey students came in early October. Groups spent most of that hour and two subsequent hours getting to know each other and discussing everything from pop culture to concepts such as achievement, respect and freedom. They talked about their similarities and their differences.

They didn’t talk much about what to put in a newspaper, but that didn’t surprise Bruess.

“As is the case in all community-based learning, a positive attitude is 80 percent of the secret,” she wrote in an Oct. 20 memo. “I’m keeping one despite the expected messiness and chaos and wonderful confusion that comes with this kind of learning!”

The experience was an eye opener for Willie Hollinbeck, a freshman from Nisswa, Minn., and a self-described “small-town kid” whose high school class had only one African-American. He has an African-American roommate at St. Thomas, and he walked into Cristo Rey “wanting to broaden my horizons” and believing he would be successful. “Kids are kids,” he said. “We all have to deal with issues of one kind or another. We can help each other.”

Catherine Alcantara, a Cristo Rey sophomore from Richfield, was in Hollinbeck’s newspaper group and was wary about the semester. “I expected it to be boring,” she said, “but it turned out to be a lot of fun, and we got a lot of good ideas for our newspaper.”

St. Thomas students wrote five journals and a final essay, and in their early journals some talked about their frustrations and a sense that they weren’t necessarily welcome at Cristo Rey.

“When we began this project you could tell that [Cristo Rey] students had a stereotypical view of us as St. Thomas students,” wrote sophomore Erica Navickas. “It was almost as though they didn’t take us seriously, and like one girl in our class said, ‘They think we wipe our butts with twenty-dollar bills.’”

Freshman Andrea Gussel thought she would be labeled a “rich, stuck-up, private-school kid” and was prepared to label Cristo Rey students as “a bunch of rough kids who grew up in terrible homes and are very easily subjected to gangs and violence.” Both assumptions were “very wrong,” Gussel wrote. “I have found that the Cristo Rey students are intelligent and opinionated … and that they are more like us than I ever imagined.”

Alcantara said she worried the St. Thomas students wouldn’t take her and her classmates seriously, “but they did. And I learned that St. Thomas students are like us – they work hard, too, to complete the goals they set for themselves.”

Attitudes changed on both sides and students focused on the tasks at hand, with each group generating ideas for their projects. That pleased COJO Department Chair Kris Bunton.

“Early on, the learning experience seemed disorganized and frustrating,” she said. “But from the beginning, Carol steadfastly reminded us that magic occurs in service learning. She was right. The mess faded away as the students began to know and trust one another. By the time they wrote their last two journals, our students were discussing the real progress that they had made in building relationships and learning to communicate effectively.”

In addition to dismissing stereotypes, St. Thomas students addressed cultural and class issues. In one journal, they discussed “privilege,” a concept on which many of them had never reflected before enrolling in COJO 111.

“I have been blindly spoiled my entire life,” wrote sophomore Erica Carlson, referring “to the intangible privileges that have always been at my fingertips. I just expect to fit in; I do not have to think about my race, my gender, or my financial status on a daily basis.”

St. Thomas students admired Cristo Rey students for how they “earned” privileges.

“I didn’t even think twice about the privilege I had until I went to Cristo Rey,” wrote sophomore Kelsey Schultz. “Throughout my visits to Cristo Rey, I began to realize how lucky I am. These kids have to work to pay for a good education. My high school education was handed to me for free.”

“Recognizing how the concept of privilege affects my view of others has greatly contributed to the reconstruction of my personal values,” wrote freshman Julia Reinisch. “This past visit at Cristo Rey affected me the most because I made a connection with one of the students as well as recognized the need to change. … I am finally experiencing the change within myself.”

The ultimate discovery for freshman Ruth Heyer was that the identities of Cristo Rey students “were shaped much like mine was. They all seem to have been greatly influenced by their families.”

On the final visit to Cristo Rey in early December, Connery again stood in Learning Garage No. 2 and talked with students from the merged newspaper groups.

A St. Thomas student and a Cristo Rey student represented each group and described what should be in the newspaper. Some groups had sketches or layouts of pages or features such as "Pride and Joy," "Shout Out" or "What’s Up at Cristo Rey." Another group outlined a survey of students to see if they agreed with Billboard’s Top 10 songs.

“What about news?” Connery asked. “Any stories with news?”

Cristo Rey’s Cesar Batres, a member of the Hollinbeck-Alcantara group, replied that it would do a story on student government elections and a profile of Myers. Batres had interviewed Myers and rattled off a series of facts about the assistant principal.

“Excellent!” Connery said. “You have some really creative ideas here. Give yourself a round of applause.”

"I didn’t even think twice about the privilege I had until I went to Cristo Rey" - Kelsey Schultz, UST sophomore

That an actual newspaper wasn’t published didn’t concern Bruess. It will happen this spring, just as a yearbook will be published and a college connections project will emerge.

“Early on, students were overwhelmed by the idea of producing something,” she said. “We told them, ‘You need to realize that you are not being graded on the content of what you are producing, but on how you are making connections and learning to be communicators.’”

Alcantara is enthused that new St. Thomas students will be back during January Term and spring semester. “I want to stay with the newspaper group,” she said, “and be part of the staff that puts out a newspaper.”

To Bruess, the beauty of the St. Thomas-Cristo Rey project is that it has the potential to continue for years, and more students will become involved as Cristo Rey becomes a full high school with four grades. In some ways, the toughest work – and the “messy stuff” that Bruess always talks about – is done. As she wrote in a mid-November memo to her colleagues:

“Today, I left Cristo Rey with the familiar and – for lack of a better word – fabulous feeling I’ve had so many times before when I finally see a community-based learning project take shape; when the tangible outcomes are finally becoming visible; when the intangible ones are rightfully imaginable. … We can be sure, through this partnership, we are constructing something meaningful, memorable and educational.

“Amen, I say, for the gift of being both a teacher and a learner in and of the community."

What is Cristo Rey?

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School opened in 2007 near Lake Street and Interstate 35W in south Minneapolis in a new building shared with the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center.

The college-preparatory Catholic school, one of 21 nationwide in the Cristo Rey Network, serves 145 freshmen and sophomores from diverse racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The school hopes to add 125 students each of the next two years and eventually have an enrollment of 500.

Students participate in the Hire4Ed program by attending school four days a week and working in entry-level positions in businesses on the fifth day to pay for most of their education. This year, 45 organizations employ Cristo Rey students, including the St. Thomas School of Law and one at the St. Thomas Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services.

For more information, see www.cristoreytc.org.

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