News Column

School Work

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How many 15-year-olds have completed résumés? Opened a savings account? Or done their taxes? At Cristo Rey New York High School, the answer is at least 220.

One of 12 private Catholic high schools in the nationwide Cristo Rey Network, the school shows what can be accomplished with a vision: "Transforming Urban America, One Student at a Time."

Started in Chicago a decade ago by a Jesuit priest, Cristo Rey schools recruit financially disadvantaged students – students must meet that criterion to be accepted – and provide them with an intense college-preparatory course load, in addition to part-time work that offsets tuition costs.

"In Chicago, 10 years ago, the Jesuits came to this community of basically Mexican immigrants and they asked them, 'What is it that you need?' and the response was 'education,'" says Lucia Cardenas, the school's assistant director for its Corporate Work-Study Program.

"The public high school had a high dropout rate, so they said, 'We can create a high school, but we want to make it independent,' so they're not depending on donations. Hence the idea of asking companies to pay the tuition."

The Cristo Rey campus in New York is located in a 19th-century building in East Harlem that was once a convent, then a home for immigrant working girls, and then a day-care facility before being completely renovated to serve the more than 220 students, 75 percent of them Hispanic.

Like a traditional high school, Cristo Rey NYHS has dances and field trips. But what you won't see is the typical high school attire of T-shirts and jeans. Students must dress every day as if they were going to a job – boys with button-down shirts and ties, and girls with button-down shirts and slacks.

This dress is required from the start, at a rigorous month-long business boot camp and academic prep course that begins the August before school starts. Half of the students' day is spent with their teachers on college prep materials, and the other half learning business etiquette, software such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and business skills, from shaking hands to basics like faxing, copying, and filing.

Students must pass the business boot camp before they are formally accepted at the high school. They are expected to be prepared to absorb the deeper refinements of business etiquette they will learn, be ready to go to work, all in addition to taking all of their regular classes.

Cristo Rey NYHS Students
Some of Cristo Rey's Finest -- Back (LtoR): Lidibeth Inoa, Roberta Nunez, Michael Anthony Gonzalez, Juan Orellana; Front (LtoR): Genesis Cedeno, Vanessa Ruiz.

"Freshman and sophomore years, we have to take classes on how to do résumés, or do our taxes," says junior Roberta Nuñez, 16. "Each semester, we also have to do a project. This year we had to read [financial maven Robert T. Kiyosaki's] Rich Kid, Smart Kid and write a report about it. Then recently I went to a bank, and had to do an interest comparison, like how much you would get for a CD or a savings account."

Work and Study
The crowning jewel of the Cristo Rey curriculum is its Corporate Work-Study Program. Students are placed into four-member groups and matched with corporate clients. Each student in the group works at the business one day a week and one Monday a month. This system allows companies to contract with Cristo Rey to fill a full-time, entry-level job for each job-sharing foursome. The students are paid $27,500, which goes directly to the school to offset approximately 70 percent of the tuition.

Students' families are required to pay something, with a $2,000 per year maximum contribution. There is financial help if needed. Jessica Dawson O'Brien, the school's director of development, says the school is funded mostly through individual donors, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in addition to a $12 million capital campaign.

Ms. Cardenas, the students' liaison for the work-study program, calls it a "win-win-win" for the companies, school and students.

"We approach companies and say, 'You need entry-level clerical work, we can give you four students. We're meeting your needs, but you're also investing in students. Hopefully later they'll become your employees in a more complex position.'"

Any given day, one-fifth of the students arrive at school and meet in their auditorium for a pre-work talk given by a member of the program staff. Topics range from motivation and career choices to job outsourcing or striving for better chemistry test scores. Ms. Dawson O'Brien says it allows the students some space and time to focus on what they're going to do.

"In a large part, we've found that it takes 18 months for kids to connect the fact that, 'If I apply myself here, I could do what people do at my workplace,'" she says.

"Right now, each year we get a different job, depending if you wanted to stay or not, and if you did a good job," Ms. Nuñez says. "I wanted to try things that weren't my type of field and I finally got one, which I really love, called Common Ground, whose goal is to solve homelessness."

A member of what will be the school's first graduating class, Ms. Nuñez hopes to go on to college and then open her own business camp for disadvantaged students, or possibly become a pediatrician.

Another student, Juan Orellana, 15, is originally from Honduras but moved to New York City when he was 11. He has been working at financial services multinational ING and hopes to get hired there after college.

Sophomore Michael Anthony Gonzalez, 17, worked for Merrill Lynch and even met the CEO. "In my first year, I worked for Christian Brothers Investment Services, and they told me to strive to go farther, and they mentioned Merrill Lynch."

While Mr. Gonzalez worked in the mail department last year, he hopes that his knowledge of the company and job assertiveness will be enough for him to move up.

School Ties
The New York campus was one of six Cristo Rey schools opened in 2004. The network is looking to open seven more in 2008, for a total of 19.

"The initial impetus for the school was based on our principal, who was kind of the project leader, Bill Ford," Ms. Dawson O'Brien explains. "Bill has a long family history of being connected to the five boroughs, and he has a strong connection to the Hispanic community. There was a lot of outreach there."

It opened three years ago with just a freshman class, has added a grade per year, and will graduate the first class of seniors next year. The incoming freshman class is looking to be 100 students, with a total of approximately 325 at the school hailing from all five of the New York boroughs.

"We started in a tiny office in the Bronx. We had no school yet," says Ms. Cardenas, who has been with the school since June 2004. "It was interesting to see how the families had to make a leap of faith. When we opened that September, it was a nice thing."

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