By Paul Totah
In the summer of 2024, the inaugural class of Cristo Rey Jesuit Seattle, 100 freshmen or more, will walk through the doors of their new high school. Their tuition will be heavily subsidized by companies that will employ the students one day each week, offering job training, professional development and perhaps most importantly, the chance to break the cycle of poverty.
It took dozens of people—from community leaders to corporate and nonprofit executives to an archbishop and a Jesuit provincial—to realize this dream, an improbable turn of events because it happened during a pandemic and an economic downturn.
Quentin Orem, who directed a $200,000 grant from his family’s foundation to kickstart the project, pointed to those who laid the groundwork for the school, including Charles Catalano, an educational consultant who began the conversation in 2015.
Mr. Catalano worked with the Fulcrum Foundation, which supports Catholic education, and its then executive director, Anthony Holter, who introduced Mr. Catalano to Michael Mott, a director of business development at Amazon, who helped to launch the Jesuit-endorsed Seattle Nativity School in 2013 to help economically challenged middle school students.
The project to establish Cristo Rey Jesuit Seattle took on new life when Mr. Orem moved to the Pacific Northwest after teaching at the Jesuits’ Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix. Mr. Orem was raised in a suburb outside Seattle where he preferred attending a public school, despite his parents’ offer to send him to a Catholic school. “I had a notion that Catholic education was strict and no fun at all. You couldn’t have paid me a million dollars to go to a Catholic school when I was a kid.”
That changed when he attended Santa Clara University, where he earned his degree in philosophy and took part in the Casa de la Solidaridad Program, spending time in El Salvador before starting his teaching career.
In 2020, Mr. Orem’s family asked him to return to the Northwest to serve as the first executive director of the Richard and Maude Ferry Foundation, named for his grandparents. In his second week on the job, he called the Cristo Rey Network to ask why there wasn’t a Cristo Rey school in Seattle. “Then I called Michael Mott and asked him if he was ready for his next big project.”
The two used the grant from the Ferry Foundation to hire Katie Seltzer to run a feasibility study, one of many steps the Cristo Rey Network requires before starting a new school. “Katie had worked at a Cristo Rey school in New York, and she was the most talented person for the job.”
Ms. Seltzer, along with 45 volunteers, spent 10 months exploring whether the proposed school could meet all it was required to do, including raising $2.5 million and finding 35 companies willing to hire students. “We were able to raise $3.6 million in pledges and have 34 companies and nonprofits committed to us,” she noted. “And that number just keeps going up.”
One high point for Ms. Seltzer was meeting students and families “who, through no fault of their own, haven’t been granted the opportunities they deserve due to their economic status. We met with students who asked if they could work two days a week or overtime rather than one day a week. These sixth graders were jumping out of their seats to work and were eager to help their families pay for their own education. This spoke to a profound maturity on their part. Their parents were thrilled at the possibility of a Jesuit education for their children and wanted to know more about how the Cristo Rey Network partners with universities.” Ms. Seltzer was recently hired to work as the school’s vice president of corporate work study, helping to place students in jobs.
The team spearheading the school launch also recruited Gaynell T. Walker, a retired school administrator, to lead a community engagement effort. “Even though my career as an educator was in the public sector, this project resonated with me, as I was raised Catholic and am a parishioner at St. Paul Church, where the new school will be located.”
She also found that “the response was overwhelmingly positive, especially from parents who were eager for their children to attend this school. This is just a wonderful opportunity and legacy for the archdiocese and the Seattle community to put kids on a trajectory to be successful in their future.” Now a member of the school’s board, she will continue her outreach efforts to recruit students to apply to the new school.
Four other partnerships proved essential in realizing this dream. “Michael Mott and I knew from the start that we needed a ringer,” said Mr. Orem. “We reached out to Bob Ratliffe, a former chair of Seattle University’s Board of Trustees and a man who could open any door in Seattle.”
Mr. Ratliffe, the president of Silver Creek Capital Management, recalled his first meeting with Mr. Orem and Mr. Mott. “I was tired of fundraising and wanted to get my hands dirty working in a food bank. Then I visited a Cristo Rey school in Atlanta and saw the students in their coats and ties eager to attend class or go to work. That’s when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to say no to this project.”
Mr. Ratliffe expanded his fundraising efforts beyond the traditional Catholic community and was impressed by how quickly donors resonated with the project. “Sometimes the gifts blew me away. One family foundation initially said their gift might range between $10,000 and $30,000. Two weeks later, I received a check for $500,000. People wanted to be part of this good work.”
Finding companies ready to hire students, even coming out of a pandemic, proved easier than the team had imagined. “Companies want to be serious about diversity, equity and inclusion and are eager to hire a diverse workforce. This school is just what they need,” said Mr. Ratliffe.
“Archbishop Paul Etienne discerned that this was the right time for our school to come to life,” said Mr. Orem. “He recognized that Seattle, despite its wealth, also has tremendous poverty. There are 17,000 high school students south of Seattle who qualify for free or reduced lunch. The need for this school is off the charts.”
Support from the Jesuits West Province also proved essential. “From the start, the past and current provincials and their teams have been fully engaged and supportive of this new school,” said Mr. Orem. “They were our constant companions and made this a Jesuit-infused work from the beginning.”
The final piece of the puzzle came together when the school’s board hired Paul Hogan, who served as principal of Portland’s Jesuit High School, where he had worked for 27 years, as the school’s founding president. “Students today feel little agency or hope for themselves, especially coming out of the pandemic. We know they will find hope at Cristo Rey Jesuit Seattle.”
When Mr. Hogan first heard about this job, he knew that Cristo Rey Jesuit Seattle “is where I want to spend my last professional decade living out the Jesuit mission of offering a preferential option for the poor. The young people we will serve are at the center of our mission to preach Jesus’ good news to those at the margins of society. We’ll work to ensure that we’re offering both the Gospel message and practical skills, as Cristo Rey schools are where the Gospel meets the American dream, where lives are transformed.”