Cristo Rey High School Work-Study Curriculum Teaches Students of Limited Means to Prep for College and Beyond

John Tabellione

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

At Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, it not only takes hard work by students to meet the challenges of a college prep curriculum. They also must work hard each day for their potential employers of tomorrow, such as Coca Cola, Delta, Invesco, Bank of America and Jones Day. 

In July 2014, a new funding model for a private, college prep school for students of limited economic means, opened its doors to 154 ninth-graders. They came from 77 feeder schools and commute from as far as 30 miles. As the newest in the unique network of 27 other Cristo Rey schools in the U.S., the Atlanta urban school then matched students who were assigned to work with a corporate partner. 

Cristo Rey President, Bill Garrett, explains: “In exchange for performing meaningful clerical and administrative tasks, such as data entry, filing, scanning, mail delivery, event planning and reception duties, the participating companies pay Cristo Rey under a separately incorporated employee leasing program. The fees offset a major portion of the tuition of the individuals. The firms may then deduct those costs as a business expense. Parents, however, do pay a fractional amount, depending upon a sliding scale income level, while philanthropy constitutes the remainder of our revenues.” 

In order to make up for the five school days per month that each student spends working, and still meet state education attendance requirements, Cristo Rey’s school days are longer, and the academic year runs from July through the end of May.

It started with a two-week “Business Training Institute” session last summer, which prepared and polished the pupils’ “soft skills,” such as offering a firm handshake, looking people in the eye when speaking, knotting a tie correctly, and hard skills such as filing, scanning, making copies and answering the phone properly. Many companies have commented on the professionalism of the young part-timers, and have featured the youths’ business and academic efforts in employee internal communication pieces. 

During the course of the year, each work-study participant receives three professional evaluation reviews (per DOL requirements), or more frequently, if appropriate. The companies go out of their way to make the involvement worthwhile for both sides, and the technology they learn while at work using PowerPoint, Excel and Word, complements the school work and homework that the students do on their own tablets provided by the school. 

In fact, when Garrett, former President of the Saint Joseph’s Mercy Foundation, makes presentations to potential new partners, he often takes a few Cristo Rey students with him. They speak and stand as examples of their hard work ethic, teamwork, punctuality and workplace experiences. “Our students have the ‘grit factor,’” said Garrett. “By that, I mean, not only have they had to persevere and had a harder time getting to where they are, but now, with their real world experience working at our partners’ offices, they are even more sophisticated.”

The Cristo Rey Network, founded by two Jesuit priests, John Foley, S.J., and Bradley Schaeffer, S.J., opened its first school in Chicago in 1996. The unique challenge that Garrett and Principal, Fr. James R. Van Dyke, S.J., faced, was to be the first in the system that had to repurpose office space into a school floor plan with classrooms, library, meeting space, lockers, etc. (The Atlanta Archdiocese offered its former office building rent-free for five years, plus renovation funding.)

“It took 18 months of planning time, and we only had six months to complete construction,” said Garrett. “All of the other high schools in our network were able to move into existing schools. In our case, we received our certificate of occupancy on July 7th of last year and we opened the doors for the academic year on July 14th. Fortunately, donations from several local private schools, like Marist, Pace Academy and Woodward Academy included several essential items, ranging from desks to lockers and buses. 

Cristo Rey’s demographics portray a quite diverse enrollment: only 40% of the student body is Catholic; the overwhelming majority of students are Hispanic or African-American; only 7% come from Catholic schools; all come from disadvantaged economic circumstances. 

While committed apprehensively to the overwhelming challenge of the work-study program that required their presence in the adult workplace, the students quickly adapted to their business environment, said Garrett. “The greater test for most of them, now that they have adapted to being part of the workforce, is the strict academic curriculum that includes biology, religion, two classes each in English and math, and Latin. The colleges are now paying more attention to students who study Latin, and they are looking for applicant diversity, as well. Some of our students, even though they are only in the 9th grade, already have high hopes of going to the Stanfords and Princetons of the world. We’ve had eight college representatives visit our school recently, and students just recently toured the Georgia Tech campus in order to get a taste of college life.” 

Like any other high school, Cristo Rey has extra-curricular programs, although limited due to the initial small enrollment. Sports include boy’s basketball, which competed in the Catholic Metro League of Atlanta, and a girl’s team, as well. The school has both boy’s and girl’s cross country and soccer teams. A Math Club and a Music Club have also been formed.

In addition to the students having made their commitments, the parents have become involved, as well. They’ve formed a parents club, and some fund-raising activity has taken place. The parents have also feted the faculty and staff of Cristo Rey with a multi-cultural, home-cooked recognition dinner.

Also, a strong core of outside volunteers has emerged, which includes 70 tutors, including 35 Georgia Tech students, who commit weekly to help with all courses during study hall hours. 

When asked to make a summary statement, Garrett said: “We currently have 41 partner companies and we already have 11 of the 27 we need for next year. However, we will eventually need 120 partners for the 500 students we anticipate to serve in 2017. With our business partner model, we hope we can show that low-income kids can get a quality prep school education that will prepare them for college and life. Hopefully, other schools can look at our system and take away whatever portions might be adaptable for them. 

“We’re thankful for the partners we have, of course, but we need many, many more because it’s time to do something about our educational system that will benefit low-income students, who should also have the opportunity to become highly educated workers and leaders of the future.”

Jones Day Law Firm Partner Praises Benefits of Cristo Rey High School Work-Study Program

Richard Deane, Atlanta Office Partner-in-Charge for the Jones Day law firm, attests to the mutual benefits of the Cristo Rey High School Work-Study program: “We have a wonderful relationship with school and with the four young men from Cristo Rey who work here.”

He adds, “The students, who perform responsible duties such as filing and document delivery services, are a real benefit to our office because their work would normally be done by our staff. Furthermore, when they engage with our attorneys, they are professional, well-spoken and are a delight to work with.” 

Deane keeps an open door policy with the students, and he personally enjoys interesting conversations with them, as do the other attorneys. Often such discussions include interests about potential law schools and legal careers, even though they are only ninth-graders.

“They are very pleasant, sharp-looking young men, sporting their school ties and shirts. Their attitude and work habits are very encouraging. We’re so pleased to be a partner with Cristo Rey High School.”

About John Tabellione

John Tabellione is an award-winning, professional business writer, complemented by over twenty-five years of strategic communication responsibilities as a Marketing, New Business Development and National Account Sales Executive in consumer goods and commercial industries. 

Experience with Fortune 500 companies, as well as with smaller firms and non-profits, encompassing a variety of products, including those of Georgia-Pacific, Kimberly-Clark and Stanley Works. 

John has a B.A. in English from Fairfield University and an MBA in Marketing from the University of Hartford. In addition, he has studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute at Syracuse University, and Italian language and culture at Kennesaw State University.