Dr. Kris Melloy’s career was on cruise control in 2005. She was a tenured professor in the St. Thomas School of Education with 16 years of seniority, and she was fully and happily engaged in her life as a teacher and a scholar. Life was good – “darned good,” in her words.
Then she stepped out of her comfort zone one day and became the founding principal of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a bold new experiment in secondary education that would serve students of color from mostly low-income families.
Her assignment would be for two years: the first to get the south Minneapolis school ready to open and the second to make sure everything ran smoothly for those pioneering students, faculty, staff and parents. Then it would be back to the safety and the predictability of her St. Thomas career.
Or so Melloy thought. The more she lived the Cristo Rey experience, the more she realized that she was thriving in a job truly outside the box. As her deadline loomed to decide whether she would stay at Cristo Rey or return to St. Thomas, “I felt like I hada huge pile of rocks on my shoulders,” she said. “I prayed a lot. I paid attention to what I was thinking, to where I felt I was most needed.”
On the day before her decision was due, the students at Cristo Rey made it for her.“The kids had been driving me crazy all week,” she said, “but that day they were awesome. At noon, when we broke up, I told the kids, ‘You’ve helped me make a big decision.’”
Good-bye, cruise control! Hello, anxiety and uncertainty! And you know something? Melloy wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Life is good – and it’s better than last year,” she said one late October day as she sat in an empty classroom. “I’m a lot more relaxed, and I’m able to be the principal. Last year I was the chief cook and bottle washer, too. We were in start-up mode, and it seemed I was doing everything.”
Melloy still does virtually everything. She is in perpetual motion, gliding from one meeting to another, pushing buttons, checking attitudes and mingling – always mingling – with students in the hallways. She knows everyone by name, and she calls out to students with a smile on her face.
“When I walk into school in the morning, I always have a list of things to do,” she said. “But I always start by saying, ‘How do I want to be today?’ And the answer is, “I want to be kind and caring and loving but not a pushover,’ and everybody knows that.”
Melloy always wanted to be a teacher. She grew up in LeMars in northwestern Iowa, the oldest of 10 children, and she liked to play school with her brothers, sisters and neighbors. “I was a mean teacher, too!” she said. “The nuns who taught me were strict, and they were my role models.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary and special education from Loras College in Dubuque and taught for 10 years in Dubuque-area schools, working with youths with mental disabilities and teaching at an alternative high school. She picked up a master’s degree in school administration at Loras and a doctorate in special education at the University of Iowa before landing at St. Thomas in 1989 to teach graduate courses in special education.
In 2004, she was asked to help with a feasibility study of whether a Cristo Rey school should be opened in Minneapolis. She visited a Cristo Rey school in Chicago and thought, “This is what we should be doing in high schools everywhere.” She admired the emphasis on a college-preparatory education for students, many of whom came from low-income families and needed that extra push.
“They bring great strengths,” she said of typical Cristo Rey students, “but they also have great needs. There are so many risk factors for these kids.”Cristo Rey leaders asked Melloy to serve as chair of the curriculum committee for the Minneapolis school.
As she dove into the assignment, she began to think about how she could best serve the school after it opened, perhaps as a consultant or a board member, and an associate told her, “You know, you could be the principal here.”
“And I kept saying, ‘I don’t know Spanish.’”
That, as it turned out, was a weak – and irrelevant – excuse, and Melloy found herself taking a two-year leave of absence from St. Thomas to launch Cristo Rey.“It happened because God called me to do it,” she said. “It’s the clearest calling I’ve had in my life. I wasn’t looking for a job – this wasn’t even in my wildest dreams. I wasn’t thinking of leaving St. Thomas at all.”
Melloy was a whirlwind in her first year at Cristo Rey. She hired faculty and staff, developed a curriculum, recruited students, raised money, met with businesses that would hire students, watched a new building go up and spread the Cristo Rey message. She was a whirlwind in her second year – “chief cook and bottle washer,” remember – as the school opened. She remains a whirlwind today. Her career may not be back on cruise control, but she’s quite content.
“I am so glad I did this,” she said, stretching out the “O.” “I experience a great amount of joy most days. A great amount of heartache, too, but mostly joy.”