When you enroll your child at a Catholic school, you know what you are going to get: a values-oriented education that seeks to develop the whole child in mind, spirit, and body. Add to that the expectation of parental involvement in encouraging the child and working with the teachers to guide the student to success.
If you sign up for the Education That Works program at Memphis Catholic High School, your high school student gets an added bonus: a real life work experience that will challenge them to investigate what their future career may look like, and an opportunity to help the family afford a private, college preparatory education. The unique Education That Works work/study curriculum is changing lives and transforming urban Memphis one student at a time.
Five years ago, in an effort to create a niche for Memphis Catholic, we had the idea to include the business community in the education of urban youth. We found that business leaders, aware of the dismal high school dropout rate and the growing knowledge gap, were concerned about the future of the local workforce. Many firms saw Education That Works as an opportunity to get personally involved in improving the education of students who might be future employees.
Like most teens, many of our students had no idea what went on in the businesses that fuel the local economy. Our goal was to expose our students to the work world and encourage their desire to go to college, graduate, and stay in or return to Memphis to work in these businesses.
It was an ambitious plan, and more importantly, a leap of faith. But as so often happens, the rewards have far out-numbered the risks taken. Today, 145 Memphis Catholic students work in an adult world five full days per month. They do real work, which is evaluated twice per school year in performance reviews by their supervisors, just as with regular employees. For their work, companies pay $5,000 per student per school year, which is deposited into the student’s tuition account, covering 66 percent of tuition costs. The program offers students a great opportunity to acquire real-time experience and connect with business professionals who may want to hire them once they graduate from college, or help them find a job in the Memphis community.
What are the results? Prior to instituting this program 25 percent of our students were receiving four-year scholarships to college. In the first year of Education That Works that number rose to 33 percent, the second year it was 44 percent, then 70 percent. In last year’s senior class, 63 percent of the students received four-year scholarships. We are proud of our students and pleased that 72 percent of our graduates who are in college today are on track to graduate within four years.
Our valedictorian last May was awarded the only Gates Millennium scholarship in the city, one of only four in the state. The previous year’s valedictorian is on scholarship at Vanderbilt, and made the Dean’s List her freshman year. One of our graduates is now employed part-time by his former corporate sponsor Greystone Financial, helping him pay his way at the University of Memphis. His job? He helps train the Education That Works interns who have followed in his footsteps at Greystone.
It’s important to note that the demographics of the Catholic High student body pretty accurately reflect the makeup of Memphis. It is 66 percent black, 14 percent white, 12 percent multi-racial, 4 percent African, 2 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian. It is about equally boys and girls, and 72 percent non-Catholic. As Catholic Schools Supt. Dr. Mary McDonald says, we don’t teach kids because they are Catholic, but because we are.
The guiding principle behind Education That Works comes not from current education journals, but from the source of all wisdom – the Bible. As it says in Isaiah 42:3, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness, he will bring forth justice.” Taking financially-disadvantaged students and introducing them to potential careers helps motivate them to reach their full potential as responsible adults and valued future employees – or employers — in our community.
We encourage young people to discover their gifts and talents and explore how God wants to use them in the real world. We expect our students to succeed, and in most cases, with the grace of God, and the help of forward-thinking business leaders, they do.
- James J. Pohlman is Principal and President of the Education That Works program at Memphis Catholic High School.