Cristo Rey expands their justice-oriented education with solar

May 2022

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School - Twin Cities is a private Catholic high school in Minneapolis. It is part of a larger network of Cristo Rey schools throughout the United States that follow a socially conscious, justice-oriented model.

In 1992, a Chicago Archbishop Joseph Bernardin recognized the stark achievement gap between people with low socioeconomic status compared to their wealthy counterparts. Bernardin tasked Father John Foley with decreasing this gap in whatever capacities possible, thus creating the first Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago to “serve families with limited financial means” and to increase college access for underserved populations.

The Twin Cities campus inception in 2006 marked great strides in supporting Minneapolis youth. Cristo Rey has taken their initiatives one step further and adopted clean energy to support efforts towards environmental justice.

I spoke with Braden Solum, VP of Business Development at iDEAL Energies about Cristo Rey’s solar array.

He had been in conversation with the General Manager at Cristo Rey – Matt Von Ende – since 2017 about the potential for solar installation at the school.

At the time, Cristo Rey did not have the necessary infrastructure to support solar arrays. Still, they were enthusiastic about solar, and they constructed a new, updated roof that would be conducive to the installation. In the interim years, Solum and CERTs were able to connect administration with various avenues of funding to subsidize the project. 

The array is a 319.55 kW-DC system at a total cost of $527,000. For a school that receives funding primarily through community connections and sponsors, it was imperative that they tap into any sources for funding to assist in making sure Cristo Rey had access to solar. The school applied for and received the maximum amount of funding possible from the Green Cost Share Fund through the City of Minneapolis. Cristo Rey received priority because it is within a Green Zone, defined by the city as “communities that have been deeply affected by pollution, racism, and other factors.” The school also explored funding options through Xcel Energy's Solar*Rewards program. All in all, Cristo Rey was able to leverage funding so that the school did not need to put a single dollar down for the project. Instead, they used Green Cost Share funding to enter a power purchase agreement, meaning they bought energy for a term and have full ownership after the term ends.

I also had a conversation with Matt Von Ende to more deeply understand the intricacies of the project and the school community. He told me that solar seems “very straightforward, but in its practical application, it becomes very complicated.” He expressed deep gratitude toward iDEAL Energies for walking them through the sometimes difficult process and working to simplify the complex processes that go into installing solar. Because of the development company’s assistance, the school is able to save money over time and use those savings to expand student programs, clubs, and community partnerships.

Cristo Rey’s novel work-study program increases college access

Cristo Rey is a private school and includes a cost of attendance. To stay in line with their mission of designing an education that “decreases economic barriers to success”, they subsidize this cost with a work-study program. The program functions by pairing teams of four students – one from each class year – with local companies to cooperatively fulfill an entry-level full-time position. The corporation in turn pays their wages to the school to cover the cost of attendance. Students can switch employment positions from year to year to gain a wide range of experiences from software development to legal and medical work.

The work-study program is a proven model. Cristo Rey boasts a 100% college acceptance rate, and at least 75% of graduates finish a post-secondary education within six years of high school graduation. Nationwide, the college acceptance rate has halted at 66.2%, and that number greatly decreases for students of color who experience systemic barriers to educational success. The work-study program demonstrates to colleges and universities that these students are willing and able to expand their horizons and are more than capable of taking on a collegiate workload. The program serves as a model that has inspired other schools to provide real-world experiences to their students.

An educational revolution in clean energy

Not only does the school and its students benefit financially from solar, but it has also increased opportunities to increase access to education in renewable energy. As part of the installation, iDEAL included a monitoring package and platform that allows people to see the solar panels and its production statistics. Matt Von Ende mentioned that the Environmental Impact Club became very interested in the package and following the data, which documents energy output in a variety of ways. Students are able to compare energy production to the equivalent amount of trees saved over its usage life and megawatt production compared to the building’s demand. The club has referenced these statistics in reports to the school on environmental stewardship and justice.

Additionally, one science teacher has incorporated hands-on experiences with the solar panels in their alternative energy use curriculum, increasing access to tangible renewable energy development projects. Having such easy access to such a large system and its energy measurements has huge implications for inspiring our future generations to get involved with the clean energy revolution. It also shows them that careers in the sector are attainable and extremely important to safeguard our climate and increase community resilience. 

Solar array size: 319.55 kW-DC 

Project costs: $527,200 

Minneapolis Green Cost Share Funding: $50,000

Annual Solar Production Estimate: 359,454 kWh/year

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