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Opportunity Thrives for Low Income Students at Cristo Rey

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School students particpate during a team building field trip - Arianne Teeple
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School students particpate during a team building field trip - Arianne Teeple
In a quiet corner of Fells Point, a Catholic high school is taking a different approach to education. Cristo Rey Jesuit High School offers Baltimore City students a unique educational model. The school offers disadvantaged kids the opportunity to get a college prep education through a work-study program. Cristo Rey's students are minority kids from some of Baltimore's most challenged neighborhoods, and they're headed for college.

The median family income of a Cristo Rey student is $28,000. Many of the students here come from far more disadvantaged circumstances. Over 70% of the kids are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. The school has assistance available for families unable to pay program and uniform costs. All of Cristo Rey's students are in the work-study program, and the money earned is used to pay that student's tuition. Students spend one to two days per week working in an entry level clerical job at a Baltimore company. Some of the firms that employ students through Cristo Rey's work-study program include Legg Mason, PNC Bank, Under Armour, and Mercy Medical Center.

"All of our students are from low income families. That is the mission of our school, to prepare low income students for college. Our students received more than $2 million in college scholarships last year," says Mary Beth Lennon, Communications Director at Cristo Rey.

Cristo Rey Baltimore is part of a network of 24 Cristo Rey Jesuit high schools in the country. The school's location in the former Holy Rosary elementary school and convent was partially renovated with a gift from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the largest gift the foundation has ever given to Catholic education. Only about half of the students enrolled are Catholic. The school welcomes kids from every faith, without proselytizing. Opened in August 2007, Cristo Rey graduated its first class in June 2011. Of those 78 graduates, all are enrolled in college this fall. Students from the Class of 2011 will be attending a variety colleges including Barnard, St. Peter's College, Stevenson University, and McDaniel College.

"What I love about this program is that it provides a mechanism for students to earn their way to success. It's not simply private school college prep programming, it's a way for students to earn that and learn skills along they way for their long term success," says Cristo Rey principal Tom Malone.

The work-study program at Cristo Rey starts with a three week "Business Boot Camp" for incoming freshmen each August. Students are given an introduction to the expectations of the professional world by volunteer instructors from companies that participate in the program. Topics include dress, manners, personal responsibility, and communication. Students at this year's Boot Camp were able to connect with some of the graduates and upperclassmen to ask questions about working, school activities, and what to expect at Cristo Rey.

One student, Unique Ferguson, told the most recent incoming class, "When you get out into the world, you'll know how to deal with different people. When you go there (to your job), learn the rules first and the people and your surroundings."

For 2011 graduate Bernard Edmonds of Northeast Baltimore, Cristo Rey was the way to ensure that he'd get the attention and structure that he needed to succeed. Bernard will be entering St. Peter's College this fall to pursue a degree in Psychology. Cristo Rey's rigorous academic programs, expectation of personal responsibility, and small class size were appealing.

"I came from public school. The stories of how you'll get lost there, I thought my chances of graduating and going to college were much better here. I'm not a student ID number, whoever you are you can stand out. You can talk to anybody about anything and get help. To have that structure, that academic focus and not be able to slack off was important for me," Edmonds says.

He also relished the opportunity to be a part of something new, and help establish the traditions of student life at Cristo Rey. The first class of students at the school, Edmonds' class had the opportunity to establish clubs and events that would impact future classes.

"Being a part of creating something that will last for a long time is exciting. Being able to say that I started Student Government or the Step Team is exciting," Edmonds continues.

Cristo Rey 2011 graduate and Salutatorian Jonathan George was attracted by the work-study program. A talented musician, he started playing steel drums in an Afro-Caribbean band at 7, and performed at festivals and churches throughout the region. He credits the experiences he gained through the work-study program at Cristo Rey with teaching him the skills he needs to be successful in the future.

"The work experience is just amazing, hands down," He says. "Each company that I was placed with brought out different aspects within me. I had the opportunity to spend time with executives that taught me how to be professional, dress properly. One important thing it taught me is body posture, to hold eye contact, simple things like that."

George recently established a business distributing coffee, and will be continuing his education at CCBC. He plans to attend VMI to study mechanical engineering after completing his Associate's degree.

The school plans to continue to track its graduates and provide support and connections for alumni. As a new school year begins and a new crop of freshmen starts the program, Cristo Rey's staff are looking forward to the next milestone for the school -- seeing the students from the Class of 2011 graduate from college.

Amy McNeal is the Innovation and Jobs News Editor for Bmore Media.

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Photos by Bmore Media Managing Photographer Arianne Teeple
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