Cristo Rey combines work, college prep and Catholic theology at Philly high school

 Students selected to work at Comcast through Cristo Rey High School.  (Meghan O'Neill/Courtesy of Cristo Rey High School)

Students selected to work at Comcast through Cristo Rey High School. (Meghan O'Neill/Courtesy of Cristo Rey High School)

About 250 freshman and sophomore students packed the basement of Logan’s Cristo Rey High School — screaming their hearts out over their own good fortune.

The kids sang and danced to pop-hits, celebrating in jubilant anticipation the future unfolding before their eyes.

While Philadelphia’s traditional public school students face a September 9th start date that’s shrouded by massive cuts to staffing and basic programming, these students, at least as far as school is concerned, have no worries.

They’re being taken care of, they know it, and they’re happy to show it.

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For them, school’s already been in session for two weeks. It’s been part typical classes, part professionalism ‘boot-camp’ — all leading to the moment Friday morning when, as 14 and 15 year olds, they were hired for jobs that would make the jaws of many college graduates drop to the floor.

They call it “signing day” and it’s kind of like an NFL draft.  Employers such as Comcast, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the Franklin Institute and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia stand at a podium and announce their student selections to raucous applause.

A Catholic school that’s independent of the Philadelphia Archdiocese,  Cristo Rey provides college-motivated students who come from low-income households with an “almost free” college-prep education.

It’s “almost free” because students pay part of their $12,000 tuition by working one day a week at one of these local corporations, ideally in a field that interests them. As far as the employer is concerned, one complete “job” is fulfilled by 4 students on rotating days. Students make up for missed class time by having longer school days the rest of the week.

Sophomore Tatiana Berrios just transferred to Cristo Rey from Frankford High School, where she received all “A’s.”

“I grew up on a ‘D-block.’ Everybody calls it a ‘D-block’ because that’s where drug dealers go. So, you know, kinda rough,” the Hunting Park native said.

When Berrios heard her name called by Independence Blue Cross, she almost couldn’t believe her luck.

“I want to be a doctor, pediatrician, genetics pediatrician,” she said almost overwhelmed at the possibility. “I don’t know which one yet.”

Berrios seems to perfectly represent Cristo Rey’s ideal student: someone with the drive to attend college, but who comes from a family who could never afford a private, prep-school education.

There are family income caps for students attending Cristo Rey.  The cap for a family of four is $30,000.

Student jobs pay 60 percent of their tuition. Most of the rest comes from private scholarship money. Depending on income, families chip in between $20 and $200 per month.

When you bring a student like this into the work-study model, says Principal Michael Gomez, the results speak for themselves. Nationally, the Cristo Rey model has 26 schools across the country, and boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate.

“It gives them a real-world experience where they can see that hard work pays off, and they can see the jobs that they can some day get with a college degree,” said Gomez, who prior to Cristo Rey served as principal at St. Joe’s Prep’s for six years. “It makes the things we do in the classroom relevant.”

In order to ensure these results, Cristo Rey asks much of its faculty, including a contracted work-day that begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5:30 p.m.

“We have a ‘no whining’ rule because if we really want to send these kids to and through college, we can’t talk about broken coffee pots. [Our teachers] are people who really believe that education is the way to make a difference in neighborhoods and communites.”

Academically speaking, Cristo Rey says it doesn’t just take the very cream of the crop.

As President John McConnell explained it: If a student has the grades to get a full scholarship to an area prep-school or gain admittance to one of the city’s high-achieving magnet schools, they encourage that student not to enroll in Cristo Rey.

“If a kid can [get a scholarship somewhere else], we would encourage them to go there so we can have a seat for a kid who would otherwise go to a school that wouldn’t get them into college,” said McConnell.

This is the school’s second year in Philadelphia, after opening in August 2012 with help from a $1.3 million grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership.

Cristo Rey describes itself as “an independent catholic school for students of all faiths.” Theology is required, but school officials say that religious diversity is encouraged. In its survey of this year’s incoming class, 19 percent reported being Catholic.

Last year’s freshman class started with 125 students. Of that group, 103 returned this year as sophomores. Of the 22 who didn’t return, a school spokesman said that about half chose not to come back and that the rest were turned away for academic reasons.

This year 315 students applied for 135 vacant seats.

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