Cristo Rey-model schools celebrated

On the 12th day of Christmas, the Pastoral Center’s auditorium was filled with dozens of corporate investors, students, leading Catholic educators, Cardinal Seán O’Malley and the founder of the Cristo Rey Network.

Jan. 6 was no longer reserved for the Feast of the Magi, but instead a celebration for the success of Cristo Rey -- “Schools that Work.”

In the 13 years since the first Cristo Rey school opened in Chicago, Father John P. Foley’s innovative education model had blossomed into a revolutionary phenomenon in the educational arena, according to G.R. Kearney’s “More Than A Dream: How One School’s Vision is Changing the World.”

Father Foley’s commitment to providing inner-city youth with an opportunity for a Catholic education has inspired grassroots groups across the country to follow his model.

“At Cristo Rey, we believe that all students should have equal access to the educational opportunities they need to be successful in college and in life,” said Father Foley.

Today, there are 22 Cristo Rey schools in 19 cities, educating over 5,000 students each year.

North Cambridge Catholic High School and Notre Dame High School in Lawrence are two thriving examples of Foley’s vision within the Boston area.

Within the past four months, North Cambridge Catholic has received over 1,000 applicants for next year’s freshman class. In a separate, but equally impressive feat, Notre Dame High School’s first ever graduation ceremony last spring saw all 51 of their graduates accepted to four-year colleges.

Sister Mary Murphy, president of Notre Dame High added that “they were awarded $4 million in scholarships and financial aid.”

One of the differences that sets Cristo Rey apart from other schools is its requisite student internship program. Each year, all Cristo Rey students fill out a profile detailing their interests and ambitions. From that profile, students are paired with corporate sponsors which can include insurance agencies, accounting firms, art museums, banks, hospitals and technology companies.

Students work part-time -- four times a month -- earning between 60 to 70 percent of their tuition over the course of their extended academic year.

Robert J. McCarthy, president of North Cambridge Catholic, spotlighted the importance of the Cristo Rey work-study program for the manner in which it prepares his students for a successful future and gives them confidence and sense of self.

“Students learn what it takes to be responsible, to be more productive, to hone their work ethic, and be a contributing member of society. By nature of being there and being part of a team, there evolves a very different conversation about their future and their vision of themselves,” he said.

A senior from Notre Dame, Lourdes Ramos said that the Cristo Rey work-study program is truly what makes her experience so special.

“I feel like I am part of a family,” Ramos said of her time spent at work-study. “I feel these experiences have helped mold me to be the responsible, reliable, determined and hard worker that I am today. These internships have also helped me realize the types of fields I would like to work in, and those I would not.”

Ramos is currently applying to colleges. She hopes to double major in international business and economics with a concentration in hotel management. Eventually she wants to get her MBA.

Ultimately, she wants to travel and manage her own five-star hotel or resort. “I know my goals and dreams are very ambitious, but I am confident in myself thanks to how much Notre Dame High School has prepared me,” she said. “My Catholic education has made all the difference because I have learned and adapted some of those fundamental values and virtues that would be difficult to learn at any other school.”

Joseph Lewis, a senior at North Cambridge Catholic who spoke at the gathering, is also applying to colleges. His top choices are Boston College, Harvard and Duke, he said.

Today, the Cristo Rey Network educates over 5,000 students who were able to raise $26 million in 2008, bringing in between 60 to 70 percent of the cost of their private college-prep education. The celebration was as much a celebration for CRN as it was for the commitment of its 1,252 sponsoring corporations.

Given the current state of the economy, Cristo Rey’s work-study model proves itself to be a win-win situation for both student and business.

“I can’t think of a more effective way for businesses to play a lead role in educating urban youth. Cristo Rey’s Corporate Work Study Program opens up doors that are not otherwise available to these young men and women,” said Thomas P. O’Neill III, an alumnus and board chair of North Cambridge Catholic.

“At the same time, businesses are investing in their own success by employing enthusiastic hard-working youth who are capable of making significant contributions to the workplace,” said O’Neill.