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Everyday Heroes: T.J. Martinez, Ed.M.'08

"For kids [and] their parents who are in cycles of poverty, violence, and even abuse, [we see] as we come to know their stories. This [opportunity] is something that will break that." -- T.J. Martinez, Cristo Rey Jesuit School.

Tj Martinez with Laura BushEvery so often, T.J. Martinez, Ed.M.'08, puts everything down and walks around the expansive grounds of the Cristo Rey Jesuit School in Houston. "When we first bought it, it was so quiet and I thought, 'Will there ever be kids roaming the school?'" he says.

Now, almost a year since Martinez opened the college preparatory school, he loves the clamor of the busy campus and its nearly 90 students. "They remind me why I'm here in the first place," he says.

Martinez had secured the position as president of the grass roots school even before graduating from HGSE's School Leadership Program. Martinez admits that, at the time, he knew nothing about starting a school other than what he had learned in class. Still, "I grabbed my diploma, gave a talk at graduation, and jumped on a plane," he recalls. The next day, Martinez was standing before an advisory board prioritizing how to get a school up and running.

Cristo Rey Jesuit School isn't just any school; Martinez describes its unique model as a marriage of a private, nonprofit, college prep school, and corporate America. It is aimed at minority students (72 percent of the student population is Latino; 25 percent is African American) from economically-challenged parts of Houston and emphasizes a high academic standard that aims to get these students off the streets and ultimately into college. The cost is mostly free.

In order to supplement the generosity of donors - whose gifts make up a large part of the budget - the school puts the students to work. As part of a corporate work-study program, the students spend one day a week at a local Houston business from 9 to 5. At the companies, mentors provide students with individual attention and an understanding that work equals money. In turn, the students' earnings from the companies are put back into the school. In the past year alone, Cristo Rey Jesuit students earned almost $500,000.

Although the work program initially started as a way to "pay the bills," Martinez says it has benefited the students in more ways than he imagined. "They are doing so much better in their grades. Their English is much better, their reading too," he says. "Kids working in banks are understanding math much easier because they see the practical application in the real world." And, more importantly, he says, the students love it. Some of the students even got hired to work throughout the summer, where they make more in three months than what some of their parents make in a year, he says.

The school has caught the attention of the entire city. This spring, former First Lady Laura Bush spent an afternoon touring the campus and participating in classroom projects with students.

To begin its second year, the Cristo Rey Jesuit School hopes to add over 90 more students this fall. The total targeted enrollment over the next few years is 500 to 550 students. And the school's goals for its students are high. "Getting 100 percent of our students into college is a bottom line," says Martinez. "That is what people are so attracted to ... that's our story."

Although the school is now a success, at times it seemed like it would never get off the ground. As a leader, Martinez had the task of finding property, funders, and students, and conducting renovations. When Hurricane Ike hit in early September 2008 and the school was left with no water or electricity, and a plummeting economy, Martinez pondered whether it was the right time to start such a new endeavor. Then he realized, he says,

Armed with an infectious attitude and an intriguing school model, Martinez rode the back of community interest. "It's such a winning thing for so many people," he says. "For kids [and] their parents who are in cycles of poverty, violence, and even abuse, [we see] as we come to know their stories. This [opportunity] is something that will break that."

"It's also a win," Martinez continues, "for people who want to invest philanthropically."

Although the school is 100 percent funded through donor gifts and the students' compensation, the students' families do contribute a minimum amount to reserve a spot for their children. This amount is often negotiated privately with Martinez, who says that each family's fee is based upon what it can afford and has ranged from $25 to homemade corn tortillas.

Martinez credits not knowing what he was doing as being the key to his success. "I had never done this before ... but I was ambitious," he recalls, noting how much he relied on Senior Lecturer James Honan's class on finances in nonprofits. "Looking back, it wasn't a bad thing that we didn't know what we were doing because we didn't know what we couldn't do."

Photo: T.J. Martinez and Laura Bush during her visit to Cristo Rey Jesuit School in spring 2010. Courtesy of Cristo Rey Jesuit School.