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The Citizen Updates: Cristo Rey Philly High

The independent school that aims to be a Prep for those who can’t afford the Prep graduated its first class last week with a “superabundance” of joy

The Citizen Updates: Cristo Rey Philly High

The independent school that aims to be a Prep for those who can’t afford the Prep graduated its first class last week with a “superabundance” of joy

Last week, during Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School’s first ever graduation ceremony,  Principal Michael Gomez watched with “joy and gratitude” as his first 79 seniors crossed the stage to get their diplomas, almost all of them looking ahead to college. But he also saw something else: The La Salle University auditorium filling up, with 1,600 supporters for just those students. There were multiple family members, of course, and school benefactors. But most of the rest were colleagues, fellow employees who had worked alongside Cristo Rey students at the jobs they go to five days of every month. It was, truly, a moment that encapsulated what Cristo Rey does at all its 28 schools around the country: Provide a vigorous college prep curriculum side by side with work experience that both helps cover tuition and introduces students to a wider professional world.

“Our kids are surrounded by extremely successful professionals, in different definitions of success, which inspires them to work hard in our rigorous academic program,” Gomez says. “Some fall in love with their jobs and want to go work for Deloitte, for example. And the people they work with, fall in love with them.”

Michael Gomez. Courtesy of Cristo Rey

Gomez opened Cristo Rey Philadelphia in 2012, after a stint as principal of Philly’s St. Joes’ Prep. The school, essentially, aims to be like a Prep for those who can’t afford the Prep. Students share jobs at companies like Comcast, the Mayor’s Office, CHOP and Deloitte, which then pay the school $7,500 towards their $12,000 tuition. The rest comes from families on a sliding scale, and from grants. The work-study program brought in $3.5 million this year, enough to cover 60 percent of the school’s operating expenses. (Nationally, the Cristo Rey network has 9,000 students, 96 percent of whom are minority, in 27 cities across America. These students earn a reported $44 million each year.)

The students hail from 80 different elementary schools around the city, admitted through an admissions program similar to that of other independent schools; next year, 11 students will travel to Cristo Rey from Camden. The graduation marked a milestone—the first class of students who made it all the way through the program.

The 79 students who graduated represent about 65 percent of those who started at the school four years ago. That’s a rate about on par with the School District—but with a critical difference: All but two are enrolled in college next year; one joined the Navy and the other is going to cosmetology school. Among them, they received 555 college acceptances—including to New York, Georgetown, Fordham, Drexel and Temple universities—and 17 scholarships. Gomez says 32 percent of the grads will pay less than $4,000 out of pocket for college each year; 47 percent are getting a free ride. Cristo Rey now has a staff member whose job it is to ensure those students are successful in college, starting with helping them prepare over the summer.  “A year from now, I want 100 percent of those who enrolled going on to their sophomore year,” says Gomez.

Still, those students represent a start, not an end point for the school. The graduation rate was slightly above average for Cristo Rey schools when they’re first starting out. (Students left for academic, behavioral and family reasons.) Gomez acknowledges that is not good enough—“We’re disappointed that we lost them,” he says.—but notes that they are still in startup mode. He says Cristo Rey continuously tweaks its program to increase retention—this year they started Saturday study sessions for sophomores, and will spend the summer revamping the after school tutoring program—and that helping students rise to both academic and behavioral standards is an ongoing goal. Next year, Gomez has also promised students more collaboration with the adults who lead the school, to create a culture in which everyone is looking out for everyone else. “We’re not the best school in Philadelphia,” he says, “but we’re working towards it.”

Those are goals that Gomez and his staff are already tackling. But for now, he is also basking in what last week’s graduation means: That this idea could work in Philadelphia. “I could not have been prouder,” he says. “That night there was a superabundance of joy.”

The Citizen talked with Gomez in 2013, when the school was just starting its second year. Here, his take on a new model of learning:

THE CITIZEN: Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School was founded in 2012. How and why was the school created?

Michael Gomez: Knowing the landscape of education in Philadelphia, especially the public sector, we saw a need to serve urban students, especially students from families that are struggling socio-economically. We wanted to reach out to these students and tell them that if you go to our high school, you will be accepted into and graduate college. It is a bold statement that no one was making and we wanted to start a school that could make that statement.

We saw a need to teach students so that they were both college-ready and world-ready.  We wanted to create a school that developed students personally and professionally. We do all this through our college prep curriculum and work-study program.


THE CITIZEN: How many students did you start with?

MG: We began in 2012 with 124 freshman. At the time we were the largest Cristo Rey School to ever open.

All of our students come with a lot of things in their “invisible backpack” that cause them to struggle. We still hold them accountable, but we cannot control the student; we can only control how we react as teachers. This makes our work extremely hard but we say “It is hard work, good work, our work.”

THE CITIZEN: Work study is a unique feature of the CR program. Why is it an important part of the philosophy?

MG: To go to Cristo Rey Philadelphia, if you were to call it a tuition school, it would cost around $12,000. By being part of the Work-Study Program students get “paid” $7,500 by the organizations and companies they work for and that goes directly to the school. Families contribute anywhere from $10 to $200 per month on a sliding scale, determined by household income and ability to pay. The rest of the funding is from donors and foundations. If you look at the entire budget, 60 percent is paid by the Work-Study Program; 30 percent is paid by donors and benefactors; and 10 percent is family contributions.

The Work-Study Program does not simply exist for financial reasons. We want our students to not only go to and succeed in college—we want them to succeed in the professional world. That is where they need experience. Through work-study you have students working in places like Comcast, the Mayor’s Office, the zoo, CHOP, and Temple University—these are life-changing experiences. At these jobs they are surrounded by successful, college-educated adults who know about hard work and commitment and who can be role models for these young men and women. So they are growing in the classroom and the Work-Study Program allows them to also grow outside the classroom.


THE CITIZEN: What types of work-study jobs do students have?

MG: We have students giving tours and setting up exhibits at the zoo. We have students working in the Mayor’s office, sometimes working on education issues, sometimes following the mayor around, and helping different departments. A lot of students work at law firms filing, sitting in on meetings, learning from the interactions of adults. Our biggest supporter is Comcast. We currently have nine jobs at Comcast. Since four students make up one job, that is 36 students at Comcast.


THE CITIZEN: How many hours a week do the students work?

MG: They work 5 days a month. One day a week and one Friday a month.


THE CITIZEN: How do you match students with jobs?

MG: We reach out to the students via survey once they are accepted. They let us know what they are interested in. We also have a 3-week “Prep for Success” Boot Camp in the summer where they are doing professional development on workplace behavior and integrity.  They also receive training in filing,  the Microsoft office suite, etc. Our Work-Study staff watches the students to see what different skills arise and we try to match students with jobs based on these skills and their interest.

Our kids are surrounded by extremely successful professionals, in different definitions of success, which inspires them to work hard in our rigorous academic program. Some fall in love with their jobs and want to go work for Deloitte, for example. And the people they work with, fall in love with them.

THE CITIZEN: Could you tell me more about the Cristo Rey Pathways Program?

MG: The Pathways to Success in College Program is from grade school through Cristo Rey through college. We will not call ourselves a successful school until all of our students graduate from college. That is why our school promise is “to and through college.” Our Pathways Program is in charge of our student college admissions and they work closely with the academic program on the college admissions process. The unique feature is that they will follow these students through college. The Pathways Department’s job is to be a mentor to all students at whatever colleges they are attending. The Pathways Program is also important because it allows students to forge relationships with universities right now. We began the Pathways Program in July 2013 to allot a few years to build those relationships because if students cannot afford the college they want to go to, even if they get in, that does not help them. So Pathways Program is for finances and retention and graduation from college.


THE CITIZEN: Partnerships seem to be an important part of CR. What does it take to forge those relationships? Has this been seen as an opportunity for organizations, companies, or local universities to help Philadelphia students in some way?

MG: The way we have been building these partnerships is by having them meet those inside of Cristo Rey. The team of adults that we have put together is absolutely phenomenal. They are extremely hardworking. They have a sense of joy and commitment. There is a sense that their hearts are connected to their jobs because they truly want to change the world and that is why they were hired. When folks come to visit us, it is normal that people begin to feel this. Then they meet our students who are 14-, 15-, and 16-year old young men and women full of wonder, promise, and dreams but just need someone to believe in them. These are just great kids who need support. So it is hard to say ‘no’ to us. We have been successful with forming partnerships with universities. We have 115 tutors come every week. We spread them out over five days. So between 20 to 30 of our students are getting one-on-one tutoring from college students, which is phenomenal. This is tutoring going on 3:30 to 4:15 or if they are really struggling from 3:30 to 5pm.

There is so much good will in this city—so many people and companies and schools with large hearts. It is a matter of reaching out to them and asking them to join us in helping these kids. It has been a joy for sure.


THE CITIZEN: How do students learn about and apply to Cristo Rey?

MG: In our first year we went door to door, visiting every school we could in Philadelphia and Camden. We hung signs up all over the city. It was really by word of mouth. What we were selling was a school that did not exist. We did not have a curriculum. We did not have teachers. We did not have a building. It was just a few people trying to convince students and families to trust us and they did. What is really helpful is that the Cristo Rey Network is behind us. We are part of a network of 28 schools. We were number 25 to open. The Cristo Rey Network’s seniors have a 100 percent acceptance rate into college and they have gotten a lot of recognition as a successful model. We have had a great team here from the beginning. When you put great people together that do not have airs and who put away pride and just figure out how to start a school, it is pretty amazing what can happen.


THE CITIZEN: Tell me more about the national Cristo Rey program. What’s the history and what is the future of this national program?

MG: The mission of all Cristo Rey schools is to get a student to and through college. To agree on that mission is pretty bold. The 28 schools work together. There are many conferences in the summer and a lot of collaboration between administrators and teachers. All schools have a Work-Study Program. In terms of the future, this year schools in Atlanta and San Jose opened. Next year schools will open in Milwaukee and Dallas. The goal is that in the next 10 years we would reach 50 schools.


THE CITIZEN: Is there anything else about Cristo Rey that you think is important?

MG: We have been able to incorporate counseling into every school day. For 30 minutes a day after lunch, the students meet with a counselor in small groups for discussion and sharing concerns. We do this so that students feel they are a part of a small team with an adult listening to them. I think this helps our retention rate.

In terms of the hiring of teachers, we share this line “The student is never the problem because the student is the mission.” So if a student does not do his homework we don’t say it’s the student’s fault; we say it is the teachers fault. The teacher needs to take responsibility to motivate the student. All of our students come with a lot of things in their “invisible backpack” that cause them to struggle. We still hold them accountable, but we cannot control the student; we can only control how we react as teachers. This makes our work extremely hard but we say “It is hard work, good work, our work.”

This interview first ran in The Citizen on March 30, 2015. 

Photo header courtesy of Cristo Rey

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