This paper explores how Chicago’s Hizmet movement can address the city’s severe educational challenges. A variety of data make clear that Chicago is failing to adequately educate a large segment of its youth population. Moreover, Chicago’s Public Schools are poorly suited to address these challenges on their own. Hizmet has begun working to address this challenge, but suspicion of the schools’ foreign connections has complicated these efforts. For this reason, this paper will examine the development of Chicago’s Catholic Schools.
Over the course of the 20th century, Catholic schools in Chicago have overcome prejudice and cultural barriers to provide high-quality education to students of many religious and racial backgrounds. The paper will then focus on one recent case study of this trend: Cristo Rey High School, whose Jesuit founders have created a unique, but highly successful curriculum for black and Latino students. This paper will conclude by drawing upon the experiences of both Cristo Rey and Chicago’s Catholic Schools to create a series of recommendations for Hizmet’s education efforts.
The Current State of Education in Chicago
Chicago’s current educational situation demands a massive nonprofit effort to assist struggling students. Data on Chicago Public Schools (CPS) indicate that it is failing to educate a large segment of the city’s youth. Poor minority students appear to bear the brunt of this failure. Moreover, the school district’s financial situation will make it difficult to improve this situation on its own, and public attitudes towards charter schools and Chicago’s politics further indicate that schools need assistance from nonprofits.
Currently, hundreds of thousands of Chicago youth are missing out on an adequate education. In the 2013-14 school year, CPS’s 420 elementary schools and 96 high schools enrolled just over 400,000 students. Of these, 39% were African-American and 46% were Hispanic, and 85% qualified for subsidized lunches. For these students, Chicago’s public education system offers the best chance of escaping poverty.
Unfortunately, virtually every statistic from CPS indicates that it is failing to direct large segments of the city’s youth towards a rewarding career. A Spring 2014 test from the Northwest Education Association placed 51.5% and 48.6% of Chicago students in grades 2-8 “at or above the national average” in reading and math, respectively. While these numbers indicate improvement from previous years, they still indicate that tens of thousands of Chicago students score below the national average. A separate 2011 assessment ranked Chicago’s performance in mathematics and reading for the same age group well below that of other major urban areas. (http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/dst2011/2012453XC8.pdf).
The performance of students in high school and college indicates further shortcomings on the part of CPS. In 2014, Chicago Public Schools reached an all-time high graduation rate of 63%. However, this number correlates poorly with future academic and career success: Illinois Policy recently observed that “45 percent of CPS graduates begin their senior year not doing well enough academically to attend a four-year college. In the fall after graduation, the most common outcome for these students was to be neither working nor in school.” Many of the graduates who do attend college require remedial classes. City Colleges of Chicago found that 94 percent of its 2,800 CPS graduates had taken remedial math.
Disturbingly, many of these shortcomings reflect and contribute to Chicago’s racial “achievement gap.” While statistics vary, it appears that black and Hispanic students greatly under-perform their white counterparts. In 2011, CPS’s African-American graduation rate was slightly over 50%, and blacks and Latinos generally score well below their white counterparts on standardized tests. According to civil-rights leader Jack Macnamara, this reality is perpetuating Chicago’s racial segregation.
None of this suggests that CPS is entirely helpless or incompetent. Test scores have risen slowly but steadily in recent years, and there have been several encouraging “turnaround” stories of rapid improvement in public schools. Providing every child in Chicago with a quality education, however, will require massive outside assistance. The district’s current financial and political situation makes this clear. CPS’s total debt currently stands at $6 billion, and serious fiscal problems in both Chicago and Illinois make outside assistance unlikely. Education has also become highly politicized in Chicago: Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 decision to reallocate resources by closing 49 schools infuriated the Chicago Teachers Union and many minority communities. Many Chicagoans also oppose the mayor’s push to expand charter education. None of these realities will prevent education reform in Chicago. However, they suggest that many painful debates and decisions will occur before CPS makes meaningful improvements. In the meantime, the best hope of improving education in the city lies with private and nonprofit organizations.
The Hizmet Movement’s Involvement
Around the world, the Hizmet movement has promoted education as a means to advance peace and human well-being. In Chicago, this effort has taken the form of Concept Charter Schools, an education-management company that operates thirty charter schools in seven Midwestern states. Its most visible Chicago school, Chicago Math and Science Academy, provides a largely black and Hispanic student body with a rigorous STEM education. In 2014, according to the Illinois State Board of Education, this school boasted an 88% graduation rate and tested 38% of its students as “ready for college.” While not ideal, these numbers indicate a marked improvement over CPS standards, particularly for black and Latino youth. In addition, Chicago Math and Science Academy has received both individual and school-wide accolades for its efforts in STEM Education.
However, Hizmet also faces challenges in its efforts to improve Chicago’s education. Concept Charters faces the same public scrutiny that has been levied against all Charter schools in Chicago—not without reason—in recent years. In addition, many Chicagoans view the schools’ Turkish connections with deep suspicion. Throughout the United States, in fact, citizens have mistaken the schools’ source of inspiration—Fethullah Gulen’s emphasis on education—for a cult-like operation. Websites have circulated rumors that a certain percentage of teachers’ salaries is directed to Fethullah Gulen, and describe “Gulenist schools” as a sinister, unified entity. During the “public comments” portion of a Chicago Public Schools board meeting this past summer, one guest described Concept Schools as being run by a “shadowy internationalist organization.” If Hizmet is to have a meaningful impact on Chicago’s educational challenges, it must work to dispel this suspicion.
For this reason, this paper will look for lessons in a different, but highly successful trend in Chicago’s educational history: the city’s Catholic schools.
History of Chicago Catholic Schools
Over the course of the twentieth century, Catholics integrated themselves into Chicago’s civic life by expanding their educational infrastructure. This effort had two important traits: the Catholic Archdiocese and independent religious groups brought Catholic school curricula in line with “mainstream” US educational norms, and focused on educating low-income students of different faiths. To help these students relate to their religious teachings, many of these schools place them in the context of community service and other universal values.
By the early 1900s, the Catholic education system had begun to take shape in Chicago. The city’s Catholic population had grown rapidly with the arrival of immigrants from Poland, Ireland, Italy, and Germany. These groups organized themselves into ethnic neighborhoods, anchored by a parish church. For these communities, religion and education became closely intertwined: Historian Timothy Neary notes that, “in 1884, the American Catholic hierarchy [had] mandated that each parish support a Catholic school.” (81). When these schools were first established in Chicago, they generally taught students from a particular ethnic neighborhood in the language of their parents and grandparents (Ryan 355). The first Catholic schools in Chicago, then, kept their communities isolated from mainstream American society.
This situation began to change in the 1910s, when cultural changes encouraged Catholic integration. This trend started during World War I, when US nationalism led native-born Americans to erroneously view Catholics’ affiliation with the Pope with suspicion. According to historian Fayette Veverka, “The wartime situation thus dramatized the need for…a permanent institutional structure that for the first time gave the Catholic Church an organized corporate presence in American public life.”
In the field of education, this effort took the form of a standardized curriculum that combined religious instruction with a standard “American” curriculum. Chicago’s Archbishop at the time, George Mundelin, took the lead in this effort by standardizing the curricula of parochial schools and changing their languages of instruction to English. Mundelin and his colleagues further integrated Chicago’s Catholic schools by embracing state accreditation. Historian Ann Marie Ryan notes that, when the State of Illinois mandated school accreditation in the 1910s and ‘20s, some Catholics in the city voiced concerns about maintaining sovereignty over their religion. At first, they accepted accreditation as a “pragmatic compromise” that would prevent further public suspicion, but eventually recognized that it would boost their status with Chicago’s societies. Visits by state accreditation inspectors became important dates and points of pride for Catholic school communities. Chicago’s Catholics had moved beyond public suspicion by demonstrating that their education systems could be compatible with US Cultural norms.
At the same time, Chicago’s Catholic schools expanded their base of support by reaching out to African-American students of different religious denominations. During the “Great Migration” of the 1910s through the 1960s, approximately 500,000 African-Americans arrived in Chicago from the South. Racist city policies, however, confined these new arrivals to a small set of neighborhoods known as the “black belt” and shut them out of many social services—particularly education. According to Neary,
“As thousands of new families moved into the South Side, the educational needs of black children increased, but public commitment to providing quality education for them waned appreciably. In the 1920s and ‘30s, public schools in the Black Belt operated in shifts. Children spent only half-days in school…in addition, public-school teachers often spurned positions in Black-Belt schools.”
While Chicago’s exact educational challenges differed from those it faces today, it appears that an inability or unwillingness of the public sector to adequately educate the city’s black population created a demand for nonprofit assistance.
The city’s Catholic schools were ideally placed to meet this need. While many of Chicago’s blacks belonged to different Christian denominations, the schools viewed educating them as a vital mission. Neary observes that “Roman Catholic tradition dictated that parishes must serve all those who resided within their boundaries, regardless of race or religion.” In addition, while many white Chicago public school teachers sought to avoid the “black belt,” their counterparts in religious orders embraced the opportunity to teach there. One group of nuns, Katherine Drexel’s Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (SBS), showed particular concern for the Black Belt. Neary notes that “SBS nuns voluntarily left their family homes and dedicated their lives to serving African-Americans. Thanks to this missionary zeal, Chicago’s Catholics were able to fill the enormous educational needs created by the Great Migration.
Chicago’s Catholic schools also benefitted from the support of African-Americans—Catholic and not—within the Black Belt. Neary notes that many blacks appreciated the alternative that Catholic schools offered to “substandard” public education. Blacks also placed an important focus on developing youth. During these years, one Protestant minister observed that, “Wherever you find a Jewish synagogue or Catholic Church, you find their school right along with it. If you can’t make a program to interest them, you can’t hold the young people. If you can’t hold the young people, what of the future?” Catholic schools filled the desire of Chicago’s blacks to educate their youth.
Since the initial surge of black enrollment in Catholic schools, several studies have suggested that they educate inner-city minority students better than public schools. In 1992, educational expert Vernon C. Polite observed that
“African American students attending Catholic schools score better on achievement tests than do their counterparts in public schools (Greeley, 1982). This is likely due in part to the strong emphasis placed on required basic courses, another correlate identified with effective schools. Nearly 50% more African Americans in Catholic schools completed courses in geometry, and 47% more completed Algebra II than did the national average. Lee and Stewart (1989) found that 60% of African American Catholic school students took chemistry, compared to 32% of African American students nationwide…Additionally, Catholic school students generally are more likely to be enrolled in college preparatory programs and complete more mathematics courses than are their public-school counterparts.”
More recent studies have also credited Chicago’s Catholic schools with helping to narrow the achievement gap between black and white students. In a 2012 study of the city’s Catholic middle schools, sociologists Maureen Hallinan and Warren Kubitschek observed that “The estimated positive effect of being in a Catholic school is stronger for black students than for white students. The positive effects for Catholic school Hispanics offset the overall negative effects of being Hispanic.”
While there are several explanations for the educational strength of inner-city Catholic Schools, one important factor is likely their emphasis on a safe learning environment. Hallinan and Kubitschek found that “feeling safe in a Catholic school has a statistically significant positive effect on reading gains.” Their findings, and those of other sociologists, speak to the potential for a religious environment to create a space conducive to learning.
Beyond improving the academic performance of disadvantaged minorities, expanding education provided a means for Chicago’s Catholics to integrate more generally into civic life. By 1930, Catholic schools educated 22% of Chicago’s students, and had created a strong working relationship between African-Americans and the city’s black community. Timothy Neary observes that, between 1932 and 1939 alone, 1,850 African-Americans converted to Catholicism. This relationship would prove crucial during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, when a young Jesuit seminarian named Jack Macnamara led a group of African-American homeowners known as the Contract Buyers’ League to reverse patterns of predatory lending against black homeowners in the city. It appears that Catholic schools helped create an institutional bond between Chicago Catholics and blacks of multiple faiths that enabled both groups to advance civil rights.
One important question remains for our study of Chicago’s Catholic schools: How are they able to maintain their religious identity when teaching students of different religious backgrounds? The most successful approach has involved community service. In 1990, Joseph O’Keefe conducted a survey of several hundred inner-city Catholic schools. On average, he found that roughly one-quarter of their students were not Catholic. Focusing on one generalized school, “St. Mark’s,” he described it as a “lively ecumenical church.” In homilies and religion classes, the district’s religious leaders present Catholic teachings in the context of universal values, particularly service and concern for the oppressed. The entire curriculum, in fact, places a heavy focus on community service. With this approach, O’Keefe concludes students of different faiths can relate to the core tenets of Catholicism.
I can personally attest to the benefits of a service-based curriculum. I attended a Catholic high school in suburban Delaware that included a significant number of non-Catholic students. All students, however, were required to complete a certain number of service hours during their sophomore year, and the school’s culture encouraged regular participation in service projects, ranging from blood drives to Habitat for Humanity trips. While many of us came from affluent backgrounds, service enabled us to appreciate the severity of poverty and other social problems. Through service activities, I assisted in shelters and soup kitchens in inner-city Philadelphia and met individuals struggling with homelessness. Schools in Chicago could benefit by replicating Catholic schools’ example of exposing students to social problems through service.
However, community service is not the only means by which education can improve students’ ability to connect with society. The next section will examine how one inner-city Chicago Catholic school has succeeded by providing students with direct employment experience.
Case Study: Cristo Rey High School
In recent years, one of the greatest successes of Chicago’s Catholic Schools has been Cristo Rey High School. Since Cristo Rey educates a predominantly Hispanic student body, incorporating students of different faiths has not been a significant challenge during its two-decade history. Even so, Cristo Rey’s innovative curriculum provides a blueprint for religious and secular nonprofit groups seeking to improve education in twenty-first century Chicago.
Cristo Rey began in 1996, after the Jesuit religious order had begun engaging with members of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Residents of this heavily Hispanic community voiced overwhelming support for a high-quality high school to serve low-income students. In response, Fr. James Foley, SJ, and other local educators founded Cristo Rey with 70 students for the 1996-7 school year.
Financing this new school presented a challenge: The school’s founders intended that Cristo Rey would serve students who could not afford tuition rates that many other Catholic schools had begun charging by the 1990s. However, the school’s curriculum cost about $9,000 per year per student. To fund itself, Cristo Rey has developed the Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP). The school works with corporate employers in downtown Chicago to place students in entry-level white-collar positions with a yearly salary of $20,000. Each student attends classes four days per week and works on the fifth day; students are organized into teams of four and so take turns working in a specific job. Their salaries are directed back to the school. This program has enabled the school to keep its average tuition around $1,000 while creating a hugely successful relationship with area employers. More than 100 corporations and organizations take part in the program, and Fr. Foley recalls that many of these employers were thanking him for their students’ contributions.
Today, the CWSP serves as the centerpiece of a larger curriculum that aims to prepare low-income students for college and corporate careers. Cristo Rey devotes considerable time and resources to preparing students for the ACT and the college-admissions process; one-third of the curriculum is taught in Spanish. Compared to Chicago Public Schools, Cristo Rey also maintains strict disciplinary standards: students must adhere to dress and haircut guidelines, and are prohibited from fraternizing with gang members. Prior to the start of classes, all incoming ninth graders participate in a “boot camp” that teaches proper hygiene, corporate dress, and workplace etiquette.
This model has proven highly successful. Today, Cristo Rey High School has grown to include 550 students and has inspired a national network of 28 high schools. In 2014, all 1,400 Cristo Rey graduates were accepted to college, and over 90 percent enrolled. The Lexington Institute has observed that “Cristo Rey’s 2008 graduating class enrolled in college at three times the rate of peers of similar economic backgrounds and completed college at nearly four times that rate.”
This is not to say that the program has been perfect. Although all of Cristo Rey’s graduates were accepted to college, only about 65 percent of freshmen at the Chicago school graduate, and only about 42 percent of those students complete college within four years. In addition, revenue from the Corporate Work Study Program has not enabled the network to become entirely self-sustaining. Cristo Rey schools rely on some combination of tuition, financial support from the Jesuits, and private philanthropy to cover about half of their operating expenses.
While Cristo Rey still faces several challenges, it has made greater progress than many of Chicago’s Public and Charter schools in improving educational outcomes for the city’s low-income students. Its track record suggests that, in the twenty-first century, providing low-income students with work experience and a disciplined, rigorous curriculum can keep them focused on academic success and their future careers. The next section will explore how this lesson—as well as the others offered by Chicago’s Catholic Schools—can be applied by the Hizmet movement.
Conclusion: Lessons for the Hizmet Movement
Over the course of the twentieth century, Chicago’s Catholic schools integrated themselves into the city’s civic life by bringing their curricula in line with government standards while also filling a major need for inner-city and minority education. They have conferred their religious teachings to students of different faiths by presenting their teachings in the context of community service, and have pioneered a highly successful work-study program for low-income high school students. Based on these experiences, this report concludes by offering a series of potential contributions that Chicago’s Hizmet students can make to education in the city.
- Include a service component in the curricula of Chicago’s Hizmet schools: As has been noted, Hizmet’s charter schools have borne the brunt of considerable public suspicion recently. However undeserved this suspicion may be, Hizmet must dispel it in order to continue contributing to education in the city. Concept Charters has already worked to refute unfounded accusations and build good relations with civic leaders. Now, it must convince the city’s general public that it is a positive presence in the community.
Catholic schools have found that incorporating service into their curricula can help them appeal to students of different faiths while building beneficial relationships with nearby communities. Chicago Math and Science Academy, and any other Hizmet-affiliated schools that come online in future years, should attempt this approach. Having advanced CMSA students tutor younger students on the city’s South or West sides might be especially beneficial. CMSA students of many different faiths could learn about the importance of Gulen’s emphasis on education, disadvantaged students would receive academic help that they might not otherwise get, and Concept Charters would confirm its commitment to the larger community.
- Expand upon Cristo Rey’s work-study model: Cristo Rey High School has successfully educated thousands of Chicago students by providing them with work experience in high school. Chicago’s Hizmet Movement is in an ideal position to support this effort. Hizmet community in the city maintains good relations with several major corporations and organizations in the city. It should consider partnering with Cristo Rey to connect its students with employment opportunities. In addition, Chicago Math and Science Academy might consider developing a work-study program of its own.
- Host discussions between CPS parents, teachers, students, and administrators, and elected officials: Hizmet community has sponsored a variety of discussions on current affairs. Chicago’s current educational crisis deserves its special attention. Hizmet community could sponsor a series of discussions between parents, teachers, and students to discuss their schools’ challenges and potential solutions. By including City of Chicago aldermen and CPS officials, these discussions could help to reduce the animosity that has recently existed between parents and teachers and the city’s government.
- Host discussions between teachers from religious, public, and Charter schools: In a different set of discussions, Hizmet community could also help teachers from different types of the city’s schools learn from each other’s experiences.
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“In a Class by Itself.” Youtube video. Posted by “Detroit Cristo Rey High School,” November 23, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Ev8kmPnzaY.
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Noreen Ahmad-Ullah, “CPS Test Scores Show Gains in Grades 2-8,” Chicago Tribune, August 7, 2014, accessed March 9, 2015. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-cps-test-scores-20140807-story.html.
“Stats and Facts.” Chicago Public Schools, accessed March 9, 2015.
Telephone interview with Jack Macnamara, February 26, 2015
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Vernon C. Polite, “Getting the Job Done Well: African American Students and Catholic Schools” Journal of Negro Education 61:2 (1992): JSTOR. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2295417>.
 “Stats and Facts.” Chicago Public Schools, accessed March 9, 2015. http://cps.edu/About_CPS/At-a-glance/Pages/Stats_and_facts.aspx
 Noreen Ahmad-Ullah, “CPS Test Scores Show Gains in Grades 2-8,” Chicago Tribune, August 7, 2014, accessed March 9, 2015. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-cps-test-scores-20140807-story.html.
 National Center for Education Statistics, “Mathematics 2011 Trial Urban District Snapshot Report,” 2011, accessed March 9, 2015. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/dst2011/2012453XC8.pdf.
 Josh Dwyer, “The Truth behind CPS’s Graduation Rate Rise,” Illinois Policy, June 3, 2013, accessed March 9, 2015. https://www.illinoispolicy.org/the-truth-behind-cpss-graduation-rate-rise/.
 Chicago Public Schools, “Despite Some Progress Made, CPS is Not Meeting the Needs of Students.” 2011. Accessed March 9, 2015. http://cps.edu/Spotlight/Documents/AchievementGapCPSTrends.pdf.
 Telephone interview, February 26, 2015
 Heather Gillers, “New Chicago Public Schools Borrowing Will Invite Scrutiny from Ratings Agencies,” February 25, 2015, accessed March 9, 2015. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/cpsbonds/ct-cps-new-bonds-met-20150225-story.html.
 Illinois Report Card, “Chicago Math and Science Academy,” accessed March 9, 2015. http://www.illinoisreportcard.com/School.aspx?schoolid=15016299025217C.
 Personal experience
 qtd. in Ann Marie Ryan, “Negotiating Assimilation: Chicago Catholic High Schools’ Pursuit of Accreditation in the Early 20th Century” History of Education Quarterly 46:3 (2009): JSTOR. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20462072> 351.
 “Black-Belt Catholic Space,” 81
 qtd. in “Black-Belt Catholic Space” 82
 Maureen Hallinan and Warren Kubitschek, “A Comparison of Academic Achievement and Adherence to the Common School Ideal in Public and Catholic Schools” Sociology of Education 85:1 (2012): JSTOR. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/41507145>. 14.
 “Black-Belt Catholic Space” 85
 Ashley Bateman: “The Cristo Rey Network: Serving Sustainable Success,” Lexington Institute, accessed February 2015.http://lexingtoninstitute.org/the-cristo-rey-network-serving-sustainable-success/.
 Marvin Hoffman: “More Than a Dream: The Cristo Rey Story,” Chicago Tribune, April 12, 2008, accessed March 9, 2015. http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/chi-cristobw12apr12-story.html.
 Lloyd Sederer: “Putting Education to Work: How Cristo Rey High Schools are Transforming Urban Education,” Huffington Post, December 12, 2014, accessed March 9, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lloyd-i-sederer-md/putting-education-to-work_b_5946974.html.
 Hoffman, “More Than a Dream”