West Milwaukee — A parade of young teenagers draws a standing ovation Tuesday as they as they file into the gymnasium at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. Dapper in their white shirts and gray slacks, the students appear nervous or shy, maybe a little excited, and it’s mirrored in the faces of parents in the bleachers.
It’s Draft Day 2016 at Cristo Rey in which the school’s 237 students are paired with 50 local employers that have committed to giving them what will be, in many cases, their first exposure to the work world.
The jobs are a central part of the mission for Cristo Rey, a national network of 32 private Catholic high schools that serve low-income, mostly Latino and African-American students.
While students aren’t paid — the money they earn goes to the school to offset the cost of their tuition — the jobs are “of huge educational value,” said Andrew Stith, president of the local Cristo Rey, which opened last fall with 129 freshmen.
“We try to teach students from early on the social norms of walking into an office, how to dress, how to introduce themselves,” Stith said. “They learn the broader world of the workplace — something many haven’t been exposed to — and they begin to think about their futures in a different way.”
This year’s event comes as many in Milwaukee are decrying the lack of job opportunities for people of color, especially African-American youth. And it follows days of unrest in the Sherman Park neighborhood that was sparked by a police shooting, but fueled by the long-standing discontentment with a city segregated along lines of color, class and socioeconomics.
Stith acknowledged that unrest and the broader concerns in his opening remarks Tuesday.
“In light of the tragic events in our community this past weekend, I’d like us to take a moment to look at all the different types of people here and our ability as a community to come together to support one another,” he said.
Stith lauded the commitment of students, parents, school staff and business leaders, calling it “a recognition that we can come together with diverse backgrounds and interests to build something special.”
Students crossed the stage Tuesday to shake hands with executives and representatives of their new employers and retrieve their bags of corporate swag: T-shirts, water bottles and other goodies emblazoned with logos.
They got a pep talk from John E. Schlifske, chairman and CEO of Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., who credited his success in part to his earliest jobs — cleaning bathrooms and trucks at his father’s small business at the age of 13 and later, during college, delivering mail at the old Marine Bank in downtown Milwaukee.
The experience, he said, shaped his work ethic and helped him visualize what he wanted to do with his life. And he encouraged students to look not at where they are today but where they could be one day.
“If you knew me at your age, no one would have expected that I would have been running Northwestern Mutual,” said Schlifske, who was the first in his family to go to college and the first to work in an office environment.
“There was nothing about me that someone would have said … that guy’s going to be a future CEO. I promise you, no one was thinking that about me,” he told the students. “The point is I think that there are no limits to what you can achieve.”
Tuesday’s draft featured 50 companies and organizations, up from 23 last year. The cadre includes a number of major employers, among them Northwestern Mutual and the Milwaukee Bucks, universities, health care providers, nonprofit organizations and others.
As part of the program, students will work on average one seven-hour day a week, and an extra day once a month. Jobs include answering phones, data entry, clerical work and more.
As a freshman last year, 15-year-old sophomore Deshawn Seals stocked patient rooms and entered employee data at Froedtert Hospital. This year he’ll be staffing the front desk at the law firm Husch Blackwell.
“I thought it was a really good learning experience,” Seals said.
Freshman LaNaya Greer, 14, said it was “exciting and nerve-wracking” waiting to hear her placement Tuesday. Greer is leaning toward a career in law, but she is looking forward to her upcoming stint with Associated Bank.
“I’ll get a new experience and a feel for something different, because I don’t know for sure what I really want to do yet,” she said.
The program has an upside for businesses, which are paying above the minimum wage, but less than they would for an experienced employee. They don’t pay for benefits, and they contribute to the development of the future workforce, which in the long run may benefit them.
Marquette University, which has two employees on the Cristo Rey board of directors, is taking 15 students, the largest contingent drafted Tuesday.
President Mike Lovell, who welcomed the new “hires” Tuesday, said the relationship may bolster its efforts to recruit Latino students. But it is also part of the university’s broader mission.
“We’re helping students get their education and great opportunities for their future,” he said.
Financed by a $5 million capital campaign, Cristo Rey opened last year in a former Catholic grade school at 1215 S. 45th St. in West Milwaukee. It doubled its size with the addition of a sophomore class this year, and expects to add an additional class in each of the next two years. Students are primarily Latino, with about 6% African-American and 1% white. Most are enrolled through the taxpayer-funded Milwaukee Parental Choice voucher program.
Stith touted some of the school’s early successes on Tuesday, saying the math comprehension for its freshmen students was three times the national average last year. He said the school had a 91% freshman retention rate this year, compared with the national Cristo Rey average of 83%, and a 100% retention of its corporate partners, compared with 90%.
“Simply put,” Stith told the crowd, “we’re on the right track.”