When Gregory Damas was a fourth grader at Our Lady of Hope School on Broad Street in North Philadelphia, he watched his elementary school close its doors as one of many archdiocesan schools to shut down that year.
The state of Catholic education in Philadelphia was in a downward spiral. A group of concerned Catholics led by Philadelphia native John McConnell met to discuss the problem, especially the lack of Catholic education for the poorest in the city. But no one had any idea how to fix the problem until one day McConnell met Father John Foley who told him about the Cristo Rey Network.
The Cristo Rey Network of schools began in 1996. Father Foley was asked to return to his hometown of Chicago after ministering to the poor in Peru for 30 years. His Jesuit provincial wanted him to start a college preparatory school to serve the low income students of the Pilsen neighborhood.
While many were excited about the idea of opening a new Catholic school, the main problem they faced was how to subsidize families unable to pay full tuition. Through a series of brainstorming sessions, the idea of a corporate work-study program, where students could work to help offset the cost of tuition, was introduced. With enough interest by local businesses that signed up to participate, the school opened its doors to 70 students in fall 1996.
Twenty years later the Cristo Rey Network has 32 schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia and are educating more than 10,700 students. Cristo Rey says it’s the only network of high schools in the United States that integrates four years of college preparatory academics with four years of professional work experience.
“I think it was an audacious idea that few people ever would have bet on being successful, and yet has proven to be quite successful,” said Jane Genster, president of the Cristo Rey Network.
That success is reflected in the Cristo Rey graduates, with most schools reporting a 100 percent college acceptance rate for their senior class.
According to Genster, the fundamentals of the Cristo Rey model that contribute to its track record of success revolve around four critical elements: Each Cristo Rey school is authentically Catholic; they have a to-and-through college focus; they offer a rigorous college-preparatory education; and they integrate academics with four years of professional workplace experience through a corporate work-study program.
The corporate work-study program is the defining element that makes the Cristo Rey model unique. Each Cristo Rey student works a full day each week at a local business in an entry-level position, and in turn the business pays the salary to the school to offset the cost of tuition.
In 2014, 9,000 Cristo Rey students earned $45 million at 2,000 corporate partners in fields such as health care, law, government, and finance.
Genster says the students’ workplace experience “reinforces both the cognitive and the non-cognitive ability found in the classroom. It demystifies the world outside their neighborhoods. It helps teach them 21st-century job skills and expectations, and the why of higher education, and career doors that professional opportunities education opens to them.”
For Damas, the opening began four years ago, when, as a freshman, he walked through the doors of his former elementary school into the brand-new Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School that had moved into the abandoned building. Now a senior, Damas joins 470 other students of low-income families across all neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. Damas says he has had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“How many high school students do you know get four internships in four years of high school before they even step foot on a college campus? So that’s insane,” he says. “I worked at Comcast my freshman year, the mayor’s office of Philadelphia my sophomore year, PricewaterhouseCooper’s my junior year, and right now [I] work at Deloitte.”
Damas is focused on college this year as he looks at Villanova, Drexel, Georgetown, and Fordham universities, hoping to take his work experience and apply it to a degree that leads to a career in accounting and financial consulting. With that experience he hopes to give back for all the mentoring he’s received by teaching kids how to manage their finances.
Damas’ desire to give back after his transformative experience at Cristo Rey is something the school hopes all of their students will realize.
“Many of the students come not recognizing or [they’re] thinking small about what their potential is. If we can help them see that they have enormous potential, enormous talents, and enormous potential to develop themselves — and to develop other students in their class. That’s when they start to super-accelerate their development,” McConnell says.
“That’s what we try to do. So even on the first day, we’re trying to get them to look at themselves as adults, as mature, responsible people that have great potential to not only develop themselves and their classmates but to contribute to our community.”
Myciah Brown, a junior at Cristo Rey Philadelphia, hopes to one day give back to the community by opening a Cristo Rey school in South Carolina. She was attracted to Cristo Rey because of its size.
“I didn’t want to be a number,” she says. “I wanted teachers, staff members, and students to know who I was and accept me for who I was, so I chose Cristo Rey.”
The school promotes this sense of community through the house program.
The student body is assigned to different “houses” made up of mixed grades and led by the seniors. The houses meet in the beginning of the day to discuss a multitude of subjects, including academic struggles.
“We have a lot of freshman who know the Cristo Rey story, but [we’re] trying to get them to understand that this is a school where teachers care about you, where staff members want to see you succeed, so we’re working hard to keep that culture alive,” Brown says.
Brown hopes to spread that culture to the South where she sees racial and educational tension. She knows that Cristo Rey would be beneficial to that area.
“My mom tells me I dream big,” Brown says.
But those big dreams are coming true for many Cristo Rey graduates, as some become the first in their family to graduate from college.
That is the case for Kaliisha Cole, a sophomore at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who hopes to become an English teacher after she graduates from college.
Her mother was attracted to Notre Dame Cristo Rey for many reasons, including the work-study program.
“This world can be very difficult to live in if you don’t have an education,” she says. “Education is the key to everything. It opens up doors for anyone who wants it. My husband and I have been guiding our daughters since they were little to know that all their hard work one day will pay off in a big way.”
Kaliisha Cole’s hard work has already gained the attention of her corporate work-study sponsor, New England Die Cutting in Methuen, Massachusetts.
Kimberly Abare, the company’s president, did not have high expectations when she signed up for the Cristo Rey program based on her experience with past interns from different schools. All that changed when Cole came to work.
“When we moved to Methuen, we said we’ll do this and participate in the community, but we’ve actually benefited more from this,” Abare says. “She’s made a really great impression for her school and for the program itself.”
Each week Notre Dame asks the corporate sponsors to rate the student’s performance.
Abare believes the accountability helps to communicate to the students how important their performance is on a daily basis. Abare is confident in Cole’s future success.
“That kid is going places [and] mainly because of her attitude [and] how she really embraces whatever you give her,” Abare says.
It is a confidence shared by Rosemarie Vecchio, Cole’s ninth-grade English teacher, who came out of retirement after 38 years of teaching in public schools to teach at Notre Dame Cristo Rey.
“The whole notion of offering students a Catholic education is very important to me, and it’s just a wonderful model. It’s a school that really has a mission in a way,” Vecchio says. “I always felt a mission in terms of educating young people and the importance of reading and writing, but this school truly has a mission beyond what I experienced in the public schools, so it’s just been delightful to be here.”
That mission is one Cristo Rey is always working to achieve.
“Our goal is not really to graduate from high school. It’s not even [to] get into college. And frankly it’s not even just [to] graduate from college,” McConnell says. “Our goal is to recognize and realize our full potential. That’s a really lofty goal.”
With that lofty goal in mind, Cristo Rey’s board adopted a 2020 strategic plan. The objective is to enroll 14,000 students in 40 schools nationwide by 2020.
Cristo Rey would also like to increase its college completion rate. Schools have begun hiring an alumni adviser to stay in touch with Cristo Rey graduates throughout their college years to offer support, resources, and coaching.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done and what our students have done, but we’re in no way complacent. We’re out there every day, thinking, How do we do better for more? It’s the vibe of the network,” Genster says. “We grapple every day with the goal of helping our students be everything that they can be.”
Celebrating Catholic Education
National Catholic Schools Week is Jan. 29 to Feb. 4. This year’s theme is “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.” For more information, visit the National Catholic Education Association at NCEA.org or contact your diocese’s Catholic schools office.