By Jason Bramwell
Each weekday at around 9:00 a.m., a minivan from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School pulls up to the Minneapolis offices of accounting and advisory firm Baker Tilly. A student exits the minivan and walks into the building, ready to start his or her workday.
Over the course of the next 7.5 hours, the student may be asked to perform such entry-level job duties as answering telephone calls, greeting guests, sorting mail, or scanning files. At 4:30 p.m., the student leaves the office, gets into a school minivan, and heads back to Cristo Rey before going home.
Four Cristo Rey students are working at Baker Tilly this year as part of the Minneapolis school's Hire4Ed program. This is the first year Baker Tilly has participated in the work-study initiative.
Cristo Rey's mission is to provide a quality, Catholic preparatory education to young men and women who live in urban communities with limited educational options. Almost all of the school's 300 students are minorities and living in poverty: 75 percent are Hispanic, 20 percent are African American, and 5 percent are another ethnicity. The students fund more than half of the cost of their education by working five full days a month in local businesses and organizations through the Hire4Ed program.
"We are not sending kids out to warehouses. We are not sending kids out to fast-food restaurants. All of them are working in professional settings," says Tim Kosiek, partner of Baker Tilly's financial institutions group, who has volunteered at Cristo Rey in several capacities since the school's inception in 2007.
The four Baker Tilly students share the responsibility of one full-time job during the school year. The students work the same day every week, and each has to work at least one Friday a month, according to Kosiek.
"We're providing young men and women in grades nine through twelve with the appropriate tools to succeed in both their academic and their professional pursuits," he says.
A Long History of Volunteerism
For the better part of thirty years, Kosiek has volunteered his time in education-related community programs that have benefited youths. He's been involved in youth coaching, helped with various junior achievement activities, and served in a number of capacities at the Catholic high school that his children attended, including chair of the school's finance committee.
"What I've been taught is that creating a solid foundation for someone's personal and professional success needs to be done in the early years," says Kosiek, who previously spent twenty years as a partner in the Ernst & Young financial services practice and seven years as a CFO of two banking organizations. "If you don't engage young men and women by the time they're fifteen or sixteen years old, the ability to make a significant difference goes down dramatically."
So when Kosiek was asked by a friend in 2007 to contribute his time at the new Cristo Rey Jesuit High School that was opening in Minneapolis, he jumped at the opportunity.
"At that time, I was between career opportunities and had a little bit of a financial runway because of a severance package. I was looking for something to do to help the community in a meaningful way," he says.
After Cristo Rey opened in fall 2007, Kosiek spent the next fourteen months as the school's business director and as a full-time volunteer.
"I established the financial structure of the school and helped volunteer in several ways," he says. "For example, I was given the opportunity to participate two or three times a week in an advisory capacity for eight students. I would help them deal with the transition to school and what it meant to be in the workplace."
In 2008, Kosiek joined the school's board of directors, and last year, he was elected to a three-year term as the board's chair.
"What I did at the school were things that not only were consistent with my professional background in finance and accounting, but also things that aligned with what I believe is important from a community service standpoint, and for me, that's the education of young men and women," he says.
Stewardship at Baker Tilly
When the time came for Kosiek to pursue another career opportunity in the accounting industry, he was attracted to firms that had some kind of community service program. Baker Tilly fulfilled that requirement.
Baker Tilly offers a unique community service initiative called Helping Enrich Relationships through Outreach (HERO), in which full-time employees are eligible for eight hours of volunteer time per budget year and are compensated for their stewardship.
According to the firm, associates contribute leadership, time, talent, spirit, and money to improve the communities in which they live and work. Many individuals support a variety of organizations by serving on boards and committees for community and not-for-profit organizations and volunteering time and talents to numerous fundraising and community activities. Baker Tilly employees regularly give more than 1,000 hours of volunteer time each year to community programs.
"There's a personal benefit, as well as a professional benefit, to participating in this program," says Kosiek, who joined Baker Tilly in July 2009. "It allows our professionals to get out in and help their communities."
In addition to his board responsibilities, Kosiek currently participates in various activities at Cristo Rey at least once a week.
"We recently had our first college acceptance recognition. During the assembly, the school announced the eleven students who were accepted into college next year," he says. "What is incredibly inspiring to me is these young men and women have the same hopes and dreams as other students who may be more fortunate because of their background or because of their family's wealth. You might imagine - across 300 students who are coming from poverty - the stories they have. They are not stories like our kids have."
Kosiek also believed that Baker Tilly's outreach initiative could help Cristo Rey students fulfill their work-study requirements. Last year, he met with Baker Tilly's executive team to see if the firm would participate in the school's Hire4Ed program.
"In the early stages of the discussion, there was a little bit of apprehension from the executive team. They were concerned about the religious identity of the school and how that aligned with a firm that seeks to serve the broader marketplace," Kosiek says. "Once I was able to articulate to them that we would be bringing in students who would equal one full-time employee, and that the firm and our people would be receiving significant value from it, the partner group became very supportive."
Baker Tilly makes an annual compensation payment of more than $28,000 to the Hire4Ed corporation - a separate, not-for-profit entity set up by the school that acts as an employment agency -- to participate in the work-study program, Kosiek says.
Fees from participating businesses are used to cover the administrative costs of the program, and the remainder is run through a payroll system, according to Cristo Rey's website. Instead of receiving a check for their net earnings, students sign an agreement with Hire4Ed that assigns their earnings to Cristo Rey to help offset the cost of their education.
Students participate in the program all four years of high school and can choose which profession they want to pursue. "The students go through a job fair at the school and interview for different positions," Kosiek says. "What we learned is that many students migrate to a specific profession and return to the same company year after year."
On their scheduled workday, the students participate in a brief morning assembly at school before they're driven to their respective worksites.
"The students who work at Baker Tilly are treated like any other employee around the office," Kosiek says. "We strongly encourage all of our people to ask them how their day is going and if they're getting enough interesting things to do. It exposes them to what it's like working in a professional business setting."
Kosiek says his colleagues have been very supportive of the students, and many have gone out of their way to engage and help them with their job responsibilities.
"We are not sending these kids out on audits. They are not yet doing tax returns. They are working with the administrative assistants, the people who run the mailroom, or the receptionists. So the administrative team has rallied around this program and shown a great deal of support," he states. "I think our firm recognizes that over the next five, ten, or fifteen years, our success as businesspeople is going to critically depend on our ability to embrace minority populations. What better way to learn how to do that than to invite these students into our office every day."
Brief History of the Cristo Rey Model
The Cristo Rey school model was developed in 1995 when then Chicago Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Bernadin encouraged the Jesuits to find a way to provide a quality, Catholic secondary education for the impoverished immigrant Hispanic population living in the Pilsen neighborhood on the near southwest side of Chicago.
"What the Jesuit priests found out was that the public school system had failed the Hispanic students in the neighborhood," says Kosiek. "The graduation rates were terribly low - less than 20 percent. So they came up with the idea of opening a school."
When the Reverend John Foley was missioned to be the founding president of the first Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, he soon discovered that most immigrant families wouldn't be able to afford a traditional private secondary education. When Foley and his team set out to find other means of financing the private school, they stumbled upon the idea of a work-study program.
When the first Cristo Rey Jesuit High School opened its doors in 2006, students attended classes four days a week and went to work one day a week at paying jobs in the Chicago business community. After only a year, faculty and staff realized an unexpected benefit from the work-study program: The students were earning more than just a wage to underwrite their tuition; they were also earning valuable skills and experience for their future.
Today, there are twenty-six Cristo Rey high schools nationwide.