It wasn’t a (real life) teacher who originally inspired Michael Gomez to teach. Or a particular class. Or even his passion to help children learn.
It was Robin Williams—or at least John Keating, the character he plays in Dead Poets Society.
“In that movie, I saw that a teacher could bring language and literature to life,” says Gomez, who is now principal of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, a Catholic school in North Philadelphia. “Keating taught with passion and exuberance and got his students to feel the same. I wanted to do just that.”
Cristo Rey Philadelphia serves low income students of all faiths with a unique model: Four days a week, students engage in a college-prep curriculum on campus. The fifth day, they work at local businesses to gain real-world experience. Four students share the duties of one full-time entry-level employee at companies such as Comcast, Independence Blue Cross and The Philadelphia Zoo. The wages earned cover approximately 60 percent of each student’s school tuition.
The school is part of the Cristo Rey Network of 28 schools serving 9,000 students, 96 percent of whom are minority, in 27 cities across America. These students earn a reported $44 million each year, and the Network boasts that it has a 100 percent college acceptance rate.
Gomez says he is continuously inspired by the real-life John Keatings he works with everyday. “Our faculty and staff truly believe they are working towards a common mission—changing the lives of the students in our care,” he says.
The principal began his career with the hope that he might teach students not just how to read “the word” (as in all literature), but also the world. “I knew that it was a world that needed change,” he says. “I thought I could do that best as a teacher.”
Gomez, who has an education doctorate from Penn, first taught at his alma mater, St. Peter’s Preparatory School, in Jersey City, NJ. Since then, he’s served as Assistant Principal for Student Affairs at Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha, NE, and as principal of Philly’s St. Joseph’s Prep.
“I will feel successful at Cristo Rey when our students graduate college and begin to transform the world,” he says.
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 and how many do you have now?
MG: We began in 2012 with 124 freshman. Right now we have 340 altogether. At the time we were the largest Cristo Rey School to ever open.
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.
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 an updated and expanded version of an interview that appeared on Open Education last year.