Working for Success

An innovative program in Chicago

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The self-perpetuating cycle of low college enrollment leading to a less employable workforce is particularly acute in the Latino community. But St. Martin College Prep, which has 401 students and 96% Latino enrollment, is doing something about it with the help of corporate partners like Barilla.

 

It’s part of Cristo Rey, a network of 38 high schools in 24 states across the country, from Florida to Oregon, with 12,300 students. One of three schools in Chicagoland, St. Martin is located in Waukegan, a suburb 26 miles from the North Shore. These Catholic learning communities offer a uniquely powerful and innovative approach to help students achieve their aspirations.

Driving this approach is the Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP). While all students at St. Martin carry a full course load, they also join the workforce one day a week. Starting as freshmen, students work at one of the school’s 80 partners. These partners range from top corporations like Barilla, Walgreens and Discover to small businesses, churches and nonprofits. Students are matched with employers through “career cluster assessments,” and provided the training they need to succeed.

Holding down a job and keeping up with classes is a sacrifice for the students and their families, many of whom are disadvantaged. But it’s well worth it, and produces concrete results at St. Martin. The graduating class of 2021 had an astounding 100% acceptance rate to four-year colleges.

“Every student at the school has a real job,” says Brian Weinberg, who manages the program at St. Martin, “and any experience is good experience. But that’s not the only benefit. They get out of their comfort zones and learn to communicate. Though teenagers, they’re treated like employees.”

Weinberg explains that the school acts as an employment agency, handling all job-related paperwork like taxes, insurance and payroll. Students typically arrive at St. Martin at 7 AM. By 7:15, buses take them to their employers, and return them to school at the end of the eight-hour workday. Companies pay Cristo Rey and the wages offset tuition. Students typically work at each employer for a couple of years. Their progress is carefully monitored by the CPWS team with feedback from the companies.

“Many wind up working at one of those companies after they finish college,” says Weinberg. “That’s a great thing.”

Barilla is a longtime partner of St. Martin. Founded in 1887 in Parma, Italy and still owned by the Barilla family, the company sells pasta in over 100 countries. Its U.S. headquarters are in Northbrook, where eight St. Martin students work, two from each grade.

One success story is Camila, who began work at Barilla as a freshman and is currently the PR-Experiential Marketing Student. According to her supervisor Keith Fisher,  “ Camila is very tech savvy and handles reporting very well. … She has no problem receiving feedback on how she could do a report differently or improve, and shows immediate response to implement. Well done, Camila!”

Recently, Camila shared that she received a full scholarship to the college of her choice. Again, well done!

Barilla’s partnership with St. Martin also benefits the company, now finishing its seventh year in the program. According to Laura Birk, Vice President of Human Resources, “The working relationship that our team has fostered with the students is a highlight for many of our employees. Many team members are in contact with their students as they move onto university, which speaks to the mentorship the program also provides. To meet the students as freshman and watch and them grow into young adults is an amazing experience and reminds us how important strong leadership and mentorship matter.”

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