Cristo Rey High School to open in North Phila. in August

AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 21, 2011

Low-income students who want to prepare for college will have a new educational option in the fall: Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School.

Founders and supporters were scheduled to announce Monday that the private Catholic academy plans to open in North Philadelphia in August with an inaugural class of 125 ninth graders.

As is the case at the 24 other schools across the country in the Cristo Rey network, the Philadelphia school will offer a rigorous academic program with a work-study component that requires students to work one day a week with a mentor at participating companies in jobs to help cover their tuition costs.

"If you can afford to go to another private school, then we probably won't admit you," said John McConnell, former board chair at St. Joseph's Preparatory School, who is president of the new school. "This is to create an opportunity for students who otherwise couldn't go to a good school."

The maximum family contribution will be $2,400 a year, but the school expects to collect $100 a month from most students. Benefactors and revenue from students' jobs will cover the remainder of the costs. Additional tuition assistance will be available for the neediest students.

"We will ask every family to make some kind of contribution," McConnell said. "No one will go for free."

Cristo Rey schools, which are in urban centers, are coeducational. They report that 99 percent of their graduates are accepted to college.

In 1996, a Jesuit priest opened Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, offering a blend of academics, corporate work experience, and extracurricular activities. Within a few years, proponents began opening other schools based on the Chicago model, and the Cristo Rey network was established.

Philadelphia's new school held an open house Saturday for prospective students. Even before that, 325 students had already requested applications. The school has said Jan. 27 is the deadline for applying for ninth-grade spots in 2012.

The school, McConnell said, is committed to creating a diverse student body.

Because students will work one day a week, the academic year will be longer. School will open Aug. 6 to prepare students for jobs that will begin in September.

"We start a month earlier than most," McConnell said. "We focus a lot on workplace skills - how to look someone in the eye; how to shake hands; how to tie a necktie."

Two years in the planning, the schools' founders were involved in talks with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in early 2010 when alumni from Northeast Catholic High School in Frankford were trying to keep the boys school open by converting to a Cristo Rey school. Ultimately, however, North Catholic was closed in June that year.

Cristo Rey Philadelphia will be housed in rented facilities next to Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church at 5218 N. Broad St. in Logan.

Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees the Office of Catholic Education, said in a statement the archdiocese was pleased to welcome Philadelphia's first Cristo Rey school.

McConnell said the school already had raised $2.8 million in private capital toward the $5 million it is trying to raise by Sept. 30. He said the school would contact companies, foundations, and individual donors to raise the rest of the money to ensure it provides "the top-notch, Catholic, college-prep education and four years of unprecedented professional work experience."

Much of the money being raised, he said, will be used to cover operating deficits expected during the first two years when operating costs will be higher and fewer students will be working.

During the first year, McConnell said, the school will spend about $20,000 per student. By the fourth year, when the school expects to enroll 450 students in grades nine to 12, the per-student cost will drop to about $11,000. Nearly $7,000 of that amount will be covered by work-study revenue.

Several area corporations, including Comcast, already have agreed to provide the entry-level jobs for the work-study program.

"This is a really interesting program, given that it has already proven itself in 24 other locations," said John Schanz, Comcast's executive vice president of network engineering and technical operations.

Comcast has signed on to fund jobs that will be filled by 20 students one day a week.

The school's work-study office will arrange the students' jobs, make the assignments, and provide training and transportation.

Rosemont College freshman Chelsey Smith, 18, a graduate of Cristo Rey New York High School in Manhattan, said she felt prepared for college. And she said her work-study positions at Citigroup and Thomson Reuters provided her with meaningful work experience.

"They care about you as a person, and if you want the experience of working with a company early on, this is something you should do," said Smith, who parlayed her senior work-study job at Thomson Reuters into a paying internship over the summer.

Cristo Rey Philadelphia is open to students of all faiths. Two Catholic religious communities - the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary - have endorsed the school, and the Jesuits are assisting as well.

In addition to four years of math, science, and English, and three years of social studies and languages, the school's core curriculum includes four years of religious studies.

The Philadelphia school also has created its own pathways program that will not only forge connections with area elementary schools but also provide regular opportunities for Cristo Rey students to participate in programs at local colleges and universities, including Temple, Holy Family, and La Salle.

"This is really unique," McConnell said. "And I think it is really powerful."


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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