Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School's first freshman class prepares for new program

Kianna Cruz (right) picks out two notebooks that are provided by the school. In less than two years, Cristo Rey Philadelphia raised more than $5 million to help get it off the ground.
Kianna Cruz (right) picks out two notebooks that are provided by the school. In less than two years, Cristo Rey Philadelphia raised more than $5 million to help get it off the ground. (In less than two years, Cristo Rey Philadelphia raised more than $5 million to help get it off the ground.)
Posted: August 15, 2012

Students at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School - a new private, Catholic school for low-income students - got a jump start on the academic year Monday.

While their friends slept late, 125 ninth graders reported at 8 a.m. to the social hall of Our Lady of Hope parish on North Broad Street in Logan, to begin a three-week boot camp of classes and discussions that is to prepare them for Cristo Rey's unusual blend of college-prep classes and work-study jobs.

Dressed in crisp plaids, gray slacks, white shirts, and dark ties, the students signed in, received their schedules, collected their supplies, and then settled into folding chairs for an assembly. The program administrators reminded them they were helping launch a new educational opportunity for Philadelphia teens that stresses hard work, responsibility, self-discipline, and religious faith to help mold them into capable young men and women.

"At Cristo Rey, one of our goals is to develop you as leaders," principal Michael Gomez told the freshmen - the type of individuals, he said, who can make a difference and "make a dent in the universe."

Each day of boot camp will begin with a short assembly at Our Lady of Hope before buses ferry students to La Salle University for academic classes and sessions focusing on job skills.

"I think it's going to be a learning lesson, because it's supposed to teach us what we're supposed to do and what we're not supposed to do during the real school year," said Ta'Naja Saunders, 14, of Frankford.

She was beaming as she recalled learning about Cristo Rey from one of her eighth grade teachers at La Salle Academy, a small Catholic elementary school in Kensington for low-income students.

"She said it would help me get into college," Saunders said. "And I thought it was exciting to come to a new school where we're the first to be here."

The Rev. John P. Foley, a Jesuit, founded the first Cristo Rey school in Chicago in 1996. He wanted to make sure low-income students had access to the same kind of rigorous college-prep education available to students whose families could afford private-school tuition.

Foley came up with the idea of having the students work five days a month at entry-level jobs at participating corporations. The wages cover a chunk of their tuition, and the experience helps prepare students for the workforce, builds their confidence, and provides glimpses of possible careers.

Cristo Rey now has a network of 25 schools in urban centers, including Newark, Boston, Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Washington. The network boasts that 99 percent of its graduates are accepted into college.

For Cristo Rey Philadelphia, student wages will cover roughly 60 percent of the more than $11,000 the school will spend to educate each student, Gomez said in a recent interview. Families will contribute between $25 and $150 per month, based on their income. Fund-raising covers the rest of the cost.

"People are very interested in this and have been very generous," Gomez said.

In less than two years, Cristo Rey Philadelphia raised more than $5 million to help it get off the ground.

Temple University, the Mayor's Office, and Independence Blue Cross are just a few of the work-study partners that have agreed to provide jobs and mentors for Cristo Rey students.

Jamire Cornish, 14, said he wanted to apply to Cristo Rey as soon as he heard about the work-study option last year during a presentation at Olney Elementary School, where he was in eighth grade.

"I'll get to work and I'll still be in school at the same time," said Cornish, who hopes to land a work-study assignment that involves computers.

John R. McConnell, president of Cristo Rey Philadelphia, marveled that the dream of bringing Cristo Rey to the city had become a reality. McConnell, a former board president of St. Joseph's Preparatory School, said the idea surfaced eight years ago.

"It's taken a lot of twists and turns," he recalled, but added that the effort had picked up momentum about 21/2 years ago.

Cristo Rey is renting Our Lady of Hope's former elementary school. The high school will add one grade per year. The students beginning ninth grade are slated to become Cristo Rey Philadelphia's first graduates in 2016.

"They are the first freshman class," Gomez said. "There is no one ahead of them. They need to learn how to be leaders in that sense. But also, if they want to change the world, transform the world, they need certain virtues to do that, certain characteristics."

Gomez, who has spent his entire educational career in Jesuit schools, left his job as principal at the Prep to take that role at Cristo Rey.

The 125 freshmen were selected from more than 200 applicants. The admissions staff considered test scores, attendance records, and tardiness. Applicants were interviewed by three staff members. Officials also reviewed family income.

The average family at Cristo Rey Philadelphia earns just under $30,000.

After students were admitted, two school representatives went to their homes to meet with their parents and guardians.

Most students live in Philadelphia, but four are traveling from Camden.

Cristo Rey will teach Catholic theology and social values, but the school is open to students of all faiths. 37 percent of the students are Catholic.

"We have made it very clear to the parents and the students that we want you to love your faith, whatever your faith may be," Gomez said.

Monday, Richard Pugh, Cristo Rey's director of campus ministry, told students about Tibetan prayer flags. People in the Himalayas, he said, say prayers over the colorful pieces of fabric and then hang them from strings so the winds will blow and spread their prayers, hopes, and blessings to benefit all.

He instructed the students to find the strip of fabric that was on the back of each of their chairs and hold it outstretched in both hands. Pugh told them to close their eyes, and consider their first day of high school and to think about the strengths they would need.

Then the students filed into the aisle to tie the strips onto a length of outstretched rope held by their teachers.

"Remember those prayers," Pugh said. "Remember those intentions."

Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or

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