TAMPA, Fla. — Dominick and Michelle Alesandrini dreamt of sending their son Joseph to a Catholic high school. For years, the Catholic couple had scrimped and saved to put their boy through the Catholic elementary school where Michelle worked as an educator.
However, the couple realized they could not afford the tuition for Tampa’s Catholic high schools on Michelle’s teaching wages and Dominick’s property maintenance and repair business. They saw their hopes for Joseph’s education slipping away.
“We’re both Catholic, and we were raised Catholic,” Michelle told the Register in early August. “We don’t want to raise just a good citizen and a good person, but a good Catholic, as well … so where your child goes to school is important.”
However, as the Alesandrinis wondered what to do, they discovered a new kind of Catholic school — a Catholic college-preparatory school specifically tailored for families with low incomes — that opened its doors in August 2016: Cristo Rey Tampa High School.
“We just felt this was an answer to a prayer for us,” Alesandrini said.
Joseph Alesandrini, 14, has joined the 93 students who form the inaugural class of Cristo Rey Tampa High School, which is one of two new college-preparatory schools to open this year for the Cristo Rey Network. The other is Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School in Louisiana.
The Cristo Rey Network serves more than 10,000 students in 21 states and the District of Columbia. It is a network of 32 Catholic college-preparatory high schools with enrollment limited to youth from urban low-income families.
But the mechanism that makes Cristo Rey schools unique is the Corporate Work-Study Program. Students have longer school hours for four days and then work one day a week in a professional setting, which allows them to earn 60% of their tuition. The remainder of tuition comes from scholarships, donors and a minimum contribution from parents calculated by an approved third party.
Cristo Rey Tampa
Charles Imbergamo, president and CEO of Cristo Rey High School Tampa, told the Register that getting the school ready to open was “an incredibly exciting ride.” The classrooms are all equipped with Wi-Fi, and students have all of their textbooks contained on their own Google Chromebooks, eliminating the need to carry around backpacks.
“We raised a lot of that philanthropy on a dream, and now it is a reality,” Imbergamo said.
They had raised $3.5 million to start, but the dream would not have been possible without the support of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla. The Cristo Rey Network strives to guarantee the Catholic identity of its schools with two mechanisms: The school has to have the authorization of the local bishop, in this case Bishop Robert Lynch, and a religious order or diocese must sponsor the school and oversee the religious instruction, sacramental life and spiritual formation of the students. At Cristo Rey Tampa, the Salesians sponsor the school.
The Cristo Rey Network has also received the endorsement of leading U.S. Church figures, such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta. Archbishop Gregory previously told the Register that the network is helping the Church deliver the promise of Catholic education to underserved families of black and Latino youth living in impoverished urban neighborhoods. According to the network’s data, 97% of students are either black, Latino or multiracial. Although the cost of living varies from place to place, the average family income is close to $35,000.
Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City told the Register that he discovered many low-income Latino Catholic parents could not afford to send their children to Catholic high schools in Oklahoma City even though they wanted to. Many had sent their children to Catholic elementary schools, but the higher tuition of high schools made Catholic high-school education out of reach for them.
That was a serious problem for the archbishop: The essence of Catholic education has always been to evangelize youth and provide them a high-caliber education and spiritual formation regardless of their faith, income status or ethnic and racial background.
“What caught my attention about the Cristo Rey model was that it targets the low-income and minority students,” he said, pointing out that they have growing Latino and African-American populations in Oklahoma City. “It’s a unique educational model and thoroughly Catholic.”
A Ticket Out of Poverty
Regina Burcham acted as liaison between the Oklahoma City Archdiocese and the network during the feasibility study — the process Cristo Rey makes applicants go through to make sure they have met all the benchmarks to build a successful Cristo Rey school. She told the Register that the low-income families they surveyed wanted their children to have a Catholic education that would prepare them for college, give them moral and spiritual formation and provide them with valuable skills and the experience of a professional work environment.
“They communicated to us that a college degree is their ticket out of generational poverty,” she said. Even though Oklahoma City has a very low Catholic population, the archdiocese discovered that they had “overwhelmingly positive” support from both low- and moderate-income families, as well as philanthropists and corporations, wanting to make this dream a reality.
Burcham, who is now the Corporate Work Study director, said she has lined up 35 corporate employers, including Boeing, Loves and various hospitals and law firms.
“Students love the jobs, because they start connecting the professional environment with their education,” she said.
Cristo Rey Oklahoma City High School has met all the benchmarks and plans to open its doors in August 2017, as the 33rd high school of the Cristo Rey Network. It will welcome 125 new freshmen its first year.
“Whether students are Catholic or not, they will be exposed to the Catholic faith, the Gospel message and the teachings of the Church, in an integral way with their educational experience,” Archbishop Coakley said.
The Cristo Rey high school will complement other efforts in Catholic education — not replace them. Families who can afford the tuition of a regular Catholic school will have to send their children there. Students are only eligible for Cristo Rey schools if their families cannot afford a Catholic education — or, in the words of founder and Jesuit Father John Foley, “If you can afford to come here, then you can’t come.”
Cristo Rey’s History
The Cristo Rey Network’s story begins in the poverty-stricken Pilsen neighborhood of southwest Chicago. Jane Genster, president and CEO of the Cristo Rey Network, told the Register that the Jesuits learned that parents “wanted their children to be professionals in this country.”
The challenge the Jesuits faced was that 1996 was not 1956. Catholic schools no longer had legions of unpaid teaching religious subsidizing the cost of education. So they devised another way — an alliance with the private sector that, over the course of 20 years, has resulted in more than 2,300 corporate partners and 46 university partners. As Cristo Rey schools spread, they systematized their approach, raised their standards of academic excellence, increased retention rates and developed post-graduation support to college-bound alumni.
Genster said the goal is to create a Cristo Rey model that retains low-income students (in all their varied situations), alongside their Catholic high-school counterparts serving middle-income to upper-income students. That goal is 90% over four years. So far, they are nearing their interim goal of 70% — but Genster pointed out that students who make it to their junior year nearly always graduate.
More than 90% of Cristo Rey graduates from the Class of 2009 enrolled in college, and 36% of the Class of 2009 completed their bachelor’s degree within six years. Although this college graduation rate is 2.5 times the rate of their low-income peers, the Cristo Rey Network wants outcomes to be on par with upper-income students by achieving a 70% six-year college completion rate for its Class of 2020. Genster said they are developing new tools and resources to help college-attending alumni find the right college or university for them and navigate the challenges that come with pursuing their degrees. The loss of a scholarship, Genster said, can derail a low-income student’s college career. But Cristo Rey high schools now have paid alumni advisers that work with graduates to solve problems with the right strategies and get back on track.
“It’s ambitious, but our view is that we should be ambitious for our young people,” she said.
Bright Futures Ahead
A Cristo Rey education made a profound impact on the life of Dominique Jordan, 25, who graduated from Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles in 2009. An African-American native of Inglewood, Calif., Jordan went to Georgetown University on a Gates Millennial Scholarship and obtained a double major in finances and management. He now has a career as a wealth adviser at Morgan Stanley, as well as a small business that handles investment planning for first responders.
Jordan said he benefited from the “Cura personalis mindset” at his Cristo Rey alma mater, where he and others were formed academically, spiritually and professionally. His own experience in the work-study program at Merrill Lynch developed his passion for the world of finance. Although he is not Catholic, he said Verbum Dei encouraged his love for Jesus as a Christian.
He added that his success was the answer to his single mother’s prayers. Since he has been given much, he has given much back in return, helping his mother raise his little sister and setting up his own nonprofit, the D.J. J.D. Foundation, to help other high-school students learn about finances, the financial market and how to set and achieve their own goals.
“Eleven years ago, if you told me I’d be where I am today, I probably would have laughed at you,” he said. “But in the Cristo Rey Network, there’s no telling where it will lead you.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
Those who are interested in bringing Cristo Rey to their area should reach out to Cristo’s school-growth team.
Brian Melton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chief network growth officer and general counsel.
Constance Croghan (email@example.com) is school-growth project manager.