This article originally appeared on Philly.com on June 5, 2016
by Martha Woodall, Staff Writer
Taylor McHenry took a chance on a new private Catholic high school in North Philadelphia for low-income students that would combine work-study and rigorous academics to provide a jump start on college.
She recalled her ninth-grade teachers at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School telling her to be patient as they developed the program, "so we just trusted."
That trust paid off for McHenry and the 79 others in the Class of 2016, who received their diplomas Friday night during ceremonies at La Salle University.
And the entire Cristo Rey community is celebrating the school's extraordinary success:
Every grad was accepted to a four-year college, and 71 will attend one, including Georgetown University, New York University, Villanova University, and Rosemont College.
Seven will enroll at Community College of Philadelphia, one will join the Navy, and one will attend cosmetology school.
Nearly half the class - 38 students - will receive financial aid that will cover all their college costs, including tuition, room, and board. The average family will have to pay $2,450 a year.
"They are doing a great job," said the Rev. John P. Foley, a Jesuit priest who founded the first Cristo Rey high school in Chicago in 1996 and spoke at the Philadelphia graduation Friday night.
The Cristo Rey network has grown to 30 schools nationwide, including one in Newark, N.J. Two schools will open in the fall, and Foley said four or five more were in the works.
"Happily," Foley said in an interview, "we can turn to Philadelphia and say, 'Do like they are doing it.' "
But the model is not for everyone. Cristo Rey Philadelphia's Class of 2016 began with 125 students, and lost about a third along the way. The program was too hard for some; others were asked to leave for disciplinary reasons; some moved.
The attrition rate was average for Cristo Rey schools, but officials were disappointed and are working to improve it.
Nationwide, 63 percent of Cristo Rey grads enrolled at four-year colleges last year; 23 percent went to two-year schools.
Officials at the network's headquarters in Chicago said Philadelphia's projected 88 percent four-year enrollment rate puts its inaugural class among the top tier of Cristo Rey schools.
"The people who have supported us are thrilled where these kids are going to college," said John McConnell, founder and president of Cristo Rey Philadelphia. "That's the bottom line for us - at least for now."
Principal Michael Gomez agreed.
"The dreaming and the planning never stops," he said during an interview in the school's rented space at the former Our Lady of Hope elementary school on North Broad Street. "But for a little bit this week we can breathe and say that we created a school that works."
Cristo Rey officials believe their model helps equip students for the rigors of higher education.
Students attend school four days a week from 7:55 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. The curriculum includes double periods of math and English in ninth and 10th grades, three years of Latin, four years of science, three years of social studies, and four years of theology.
"We call ourselves a Catholic school for students of all faiths," McConnell said. "Eighty-five percent of our kids are not Catholic."
Cristo Rey students spend one day a week working at a business, law firm, nonprofit, hospital, or public agency.
"Every student has a good job," McConnell said.
The business and philanthropic community has embraced the idea.
"It's a great program," said Jim Birch, an official at Liberty Property Trust, a local property management firm that has been a work-study partner for three years. "It's an opportunity to give back and share what we do as a company with our youth."
Through the jobs program, students learn good work habits, gain corporate experience, and earn money to cover a large share of their tuition - a critical component for low-income students.
McConnell puts the cost of educating a Cristo Rey student at $12,000. Work-study provides $7,500. The average family contributes about $900 a year. The rest comes from fund-raising, scholarships, and aid from state programs that give tax credits to businesses that contribute to approved scholarship programs.
"The family contribution is based on the ability to pay," McConnell said.
The average Cristo Rey Philadelphia family earns $31,500 a year. "No kid in this school has the ability to pay a big tuition," McConnell said.
The work-study program is a major draw.
Jonathan Ortiz, 18, who is from the Northeast, said he was interested in Cristo Rey as soon as he heard it offered a chance to work at a place like Comcast.
Although he worked at a law firm as a freshman, he spent three years at Comcast.
Ortiz is heading to Penn State-Altoona to study business entrepreneurship. His tuition is covered there, and other financial awards - including a National Horatio Alger Scholarship totaling $22,000 - will cover the rest of his college expenses.
"I was pretty fortunate with the financial aid and scholarships," Ortiz said.
The chance to gain work experience also caught the attention of McHenry, 18, of West Philadelphia. She worked at a law firm one year and spent three years at Liberty Property Trust.
Thanks, in part, to the impression she made at Liberty Property, McHenry's education at Widener University will be covered.
Her scholarships include $2,000 a year from Liberty Property, a $7,500 scholarship from the Deloitte Foundation, and a $10,000 scholarship from Widener's board.
"Taylor McHenry is the kind of student we want to continue to attract to Widener," said Tonie Leatherberry, a principal at Deloitte who is also a trustee at Widener University.
The next goal for Cristo Rey Philadelphia is making sure its graduates earn college degrees.
Nationwide, 36 percent of 2009 Cristo Rey grads earned their bachelor degrees within six years, compared with 15 percent for all low-income students. The National Center for Education Statistics shows that 59 percent of all students who enroll in four-year colleges earn degrees within six years.
"Really, the bottom line is [that] they graduate," McConnell said.
The school has hired a staffer to keep tabs on its grads and offer support, especially for those who are the first in their family to attend college.
McConnell said that effort was critical for Cristo Rey students.
When Ortiz starts at Penn State-Altoona, he'll be the first in his family to go to college. But he can't believe his time is over at Cristo Rey.
"Time flies," he said. "You just have flashbacks of everything. It's coming to an end, and it's really emotional."