“It’s like a family,” is how most Cristo Rey St. Martin students respond when asked to describe the culture at the school. It’s not accidental. Building community, creating a culture of care and trust, fostering a compassionate but challenging environment where students find motivation and success is a deliberate act… a sustained team effort by faculty and administration over several years. Think of the challenge of maintaining a consistently high performing culture when 25% of your students turnover every year. At CRSM, culture is intentional. A quote from an alumna of CRSM ’10 captures an important aspect of our mission. In an address to our students after graduating Dartmouth, she said:
“One final note that I want to touch on is the idea of collective success. … Through my four years (at college), I’ve learned that having a degree shouldn’t mean I’ve “made it” …that my successes mean nothing if there are still so many talented and intelligent young people who are [not given a chance at success]. CRSM does an amazing job at advocating for collective success… Collective success is the only way to enact widespread change and I am proud to have graduated from a high school that is doing just that.”
Having a strong school culture paid off during the pandemic. Our school community found ways to maintain its sense of belonging and collective mission by maximizing opportunities to learn in-person and gathering regularly to serve our neighbors through food distribution events and vaccination clinics. As a result, when we returned this school year to full-time, in-person classes, our students’ performance went through the roof. This year, we had more students earning above a 3.0 GPA and fewer students with GPAs below 2.0 than ever before. As one senior said to me, “Mr. Kendall, we worked so hard and had to constantly adapt to everything COVID threw at us, but we persevered and, especially this year, it just feels like we came roaring back!”
At the end of every school year, our Principal surveys students and faculty. This year’s results proved positive beyond expectations. For example, here’s how students responded to the following statements:
- “At our school, programs and services are available to help me succeed.” 48.6% of students strongly agreed and 43.8% agreed
- “At our school, a high-quality education is offered.” 59.0% strongly agreed and 35.2% agreed
- “At our school, adults have high expectations for me.” 50.0% strongly agreed and 42.9% agreed
- “Staff in our school display a caring attitude toward students.” 46.9% strongly agreed and 44.1% agreed
Over 90% of students either strongly agreed or agreed to all those statements. Hopefully, this is evidence we are doing something right!
Teachers offered similar endorsements. When asked to identify CRSM’s greatest strength, here is what they had to say:
- “The greatest strength of CRSM is the shared purpose. More than any other school I’ve ever worked in or visited, I think the students generally feel that the teachers are collaborators rather than gate keepers. This creates a tremendously productive learning environment.”
- “The people. From students, to staff, to administration there is a great respect and drive for success. People are given freedoms, and in return they work harder perform at their very best.”
- “CRSM’s greatest strength (apart from its students) is that it keeps learning transparent. We are able to collaborate with teachers and admin and support staff. I think our students are constantly growing because the teachers have the freedom to grow and learn themselves.”
- “The community – students, families, staff – all focused on the mission”
“It’s like a family.” English grammar labels that a simile. But sometimes CRSM isn’t just “like” a family, sometimes it really is a family. At graduation this past weekend, I experienced a bittersweet family moment I will always treasure. Our mass and commencement ceremony had ended, the joyous throng of rightfully proud families and graduates had moved out from the gym and into the school parking lot accompanied by mariachi music booked by a grateful father for just this occasion. Many of us from the faculty and administration mingled, chatted, posed for pictures, and celebrated with the families.
As the crowd thinned, I made my way back inside the now quiet building and was walking the long hallway to my office when a voice called out. I turned and saw two parents literally running toward me, the mother crying. I immediately recognized them. Their twin girls had just graduated, the two youngest of their eight children. Their boys, the two oldest, entered high school before Cristo Rey St. Martin was founded but all six girls attended CRSM. Starting as a 9th grader in 2005, the oldest girl graduated in 2009, followed by her other sisters graduating in 2012, 2013, 2019, and the twins in 2022! The daughter from Class of 2013 was Valedictorian and one of the twins this year was Salutatorian for her class.
The oldest daughter is now a bilingual teacher with M.Ed. in Elementary Education & Teaching pursuing her second Master’s degree in Educational Leadership & Administration. Another daughter has a Bachelor’s in Social Work and a Master’s in Business Management working as a College and Career Navigator/Academic Advisor at our local Community College. Still another earned a BA in Computer Science from Georgetown and a BS in Computer Engineering from Columbia in New York. Yet another is at Lake Forest studying Education One of the twins is on her way to University of Illinois to study Civil Engineering and the other to Lake Forest College as an Education major.
As we closed the gap between us, the mother hugged me and said through her tears, “After 17 straight years, we won’t have anyone attending CRSM next year. We are all done! Thank you so much for… everything!” I hugged her back, saying, “I should be thanking you! Your family has been such a huge part of CRSM. You and your family have made CRSM like a family to so many. Thank you for sharing your daughters with us. We are so proud of each and every one of them.”
I shook the father’s hand and marveled at these two parents who worked so hard and gave their all to give their children a better life – true heroes. As we parted and I turned toward my office, I must admit I shed a tear or two, too. ¡Viva Cristo Rey!