Landing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his corner takes the sort of skills Christopher Devron might have parlayed into a high-paying partnership with a downtown law firm if the Palatine native had continued on his path to be a lawyer. But Devron can't be happier with the much different way it turned out. "The mayor's coming," says the Rev. Devron, literally loosening his priestly collar as he works behind the scenes preparing for Saturday's graduation ceremony at the Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School on the West Side of Chicago. Devron is president of the school, where all 50 graduates have been accepted at colleges. Not only does Emanuel come to celebrate with the students, he agrees to hire some of Devron's students to work in the mayor's office next year.
"Conventional wisdom says this day is not possible," Emanuel tells the jubilant crowd, as he talks about how the school's neighborhood, which struggles with crime, drugs and poverty, makes many people say these kids can't achieve the dreams of college. "I know Father Devron will say, 'Yes, we can.'"
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Devron, a 1989 graduate of Notre Dame University ordained as a Catholic priest in 2001 and chosen to start Christ the King in 2008 in the Austin neighborhood, says it's rewarding that 100 percent of the school's first graduating class has been accepted into college.
"It's much better than I expected because the challenges have been much greater," he says of working in a neighborhood where most kids don't finish high school. "When you come though great challenges, the success feels much better."
The school, modeled after the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in the Pilsen neighborhood where Devron lives in a home with other Jesuits, is one of 25 such schools around the nation.
Students spend five days a month working jobs in the corporate world to help pay for their schooling as they get an education in the world of possibilities beyond the West Side.
Students at the Austin school worked at insurance broker Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. and electronics company Knowles in Itasca, at Lake Cable in Bensenville, at MB Financial Bank and Reyes Holdings in Rosemont, and at other suburban businesses.
During their four years, the students earned $1.5 million to help pay for 75 percent of their education, Devron says. They also donated 7,000 hours of volunteer work.
When Larry Carr walks home in his dress clothes and tie, the 18-year-old draws the attention of his peers hanging in the Austin neighborhood.
"They say, 'That's Christ the King right there. He's going to be something,'" Carr says. Working in the mailroom, payroll and human resources at Reyes, a food and beverage company, taught him skills he'll need in college and beyond, Carr says.
"I learned timeliness, perseverance and the ability to keep the ball rolling when I'm on my own," says Carr, who introduces the mayor and who won numerous awards in high school and placed third in the regional wrestling tournament. He will study architecture at Southern Illinois University.
"I feel blessed," Carr says of his four years at Christ the King. "I hope the next time I come back, I'll be able to bless them. My main goal is to take all the vacant lots on the West Side and turn them into affordable housing."
While Carr has a supportive mother and father and siblings who've gone to college, many students are more like Elissa Castleberry, who is 18 and came from a trying home life that now has her and her younger sister living with her godmother's mother.
"You could talk to (teachers and staff at the school) about things other than schoolwork," says Castleberry, who says she is glad the school "pushed" her academically.
"I don't pay any attention to statistics," she says, explaining how she has avoided "drugs and the street life" in the neighborhood so she can attend Triton College and become an ultrasound technician. "I do what I have to do to succeed in life."
The kids say they are confident that will surpass the low expectations of their neighborhood.
"I beat the odds, and I'll continue to beat the odds," says 17-year-old Shaquocora Henderson, who is headed to Marquette University to study construction management and international business.
"I don't expect anything but the best for her," says her mom, Shawntel Mables, 37.
A white suburban kid who grew up in Des Plaines and graduated from Loyola University, 24-year-old Daniel Zundel volunteered about 60 hours a week these past two years teaching freshman civics and serving as co-director of Christian service for the school.
"It's stressful with long hours, but I love it," says Zundel, who finished his volunteer stint and immediately got hired as a full-time staffer at the school in the neighborhood where his relatives used to live a couple of generations ago. The most rewarding part of his job is to see freshmen "come in all goofy" and by sometime in their sophomore year, they get serious about school and their future. "It's like flipping on the light," Zundel says.
The school's energetic and popular music director, Andrew Jones, grew up in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood similar to Austin.
"My mom always said they grew their kids up in the hood but not of the hood," says Jones, 28, who served five years with the Air Force and now makes his home in Hoffman Estates. He just finished his second year leading the schools' choirs and music programs. But on his first day at the school, a girl challenged him.
"She said, 'How are you going to teach us when you don't even know who we is?'" says Jones, shuddering at the memory. "I went home and cried that first night, and I've loved my job from the second day on."
Running a school in a new $28 million facility that is only half paid for can be stressful for Devron. He talks about the help he gets from his parents, Jack and Pat Devron, and fellow parishioners at St. Thomas of Villanova parish in Palatine, St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church in Hinsdale and other volunteers and donors throughout the suburbs and city, many of whom attend Saturday's graduation ceremony.
"The key to me is to focus on the ordinary. Where is God working today?" Devron says. "The end result is we are forming young people who can change the world and impact others in a positive way."