Cristo Rey students were thrilled to meet Mayor Michael Nutter recently. The students seen here are, from left, Rishaun Hall, Simon Velez and Samone Parker-Watson. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Thanks to professionals like Chestnut Hill resident Rod Henkels, president of Henkels & McCoy, students at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, 5218 N. Broad St., are literally working their way through school.

Cristo Rey is a private, Catholic, college-preparatory high school for low-income students. The school, which opened in August 2012, is the first of its kind in Philadelphia. It is one of 25 in the nationwide Cristo Rey network. (“Cristo Rey” means “Long live Christ the king!”)

As part of Cristo Rey’s unique work-study program, students work in entry-level positions, five days a month, at various companies and organizations including Temple University, United Healthcare, CHOP and the Mayor’s Office. Money earned from student jobs funds 60 percent of each student’s tuition. The Company cost per student work-team is $30,000. (One job is shared by four students.)

Henkels, a board member of Cristo Rey, funds a work-study position in Mayor Michael Nutter’s office.

“The whole idea is to put students in a professional work environment in preparation for going to college,” Henkels said.

And the Cristo Rey model is working; Students, however, must go through an extensive screening process before being accepted into the school.

“Students’ zip code should not determine what type of education they get,” Chestnut Hill resident Flannery O’Connor, director of admissions at Cristo Rey, said. “Cristo Rey enables students from low-income families to get a private school education and the work-study experience they need to succeed in college without the financial burden.”

O’Connor said students attend a three-week business boot camp from Aug. 13 to 31 to be prepared to work in a professional environment. Students learn software programs such as Excel, PowerPoint and Microsoft Word, as well as other useful technology tools.

Last month, Nutter joined more than 50 business leaders to discuss the importance of hard work, discipline and a good education with Cristo Rey’s ninth-grade students during “Project: Career Day.” Nutter told students their “studies were critical” and that to be successful students must be willing to “work hard every day.”

“If there is something you want to do, follow your passion, follow your dream, put your heart and soul into to it,” he said. “You must be willing to work harder than anyone else to achieve your goals because ultimately you really are in control of what your future is.”

Telling students “to have fun but do your work,” Nutter continued: “There is this concept in some parts of the city and in some communities, especially communities of color — African American and Latin communities — there is almost this rejection of being smart. It’s OK to be smart; that’s cool, too.”

Paul Kallmeyer, deputy general counsel for United Healthcare, said students bring a fresh perspective to his company. “They give us an opportunity to interact broadly with our customers on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

“The core mission of Cristo Rey is not only for our students to attend college but to be successful in college,” said Robert Fabiszewski, director of the work-study program at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School. “To achieve that goal, they have a rigorous academic curriculum as well as professional work-study program. The idea is that by the time they [students] are seniors, at Cristo Rey they will be doing college-level work and, depending on the capability of the individual student, performing work skills similar to college interns.”

The school opens at 7:30 a.m. Classes begin at 7:55 a.m. and end at 4:15 p.m., and students depart for work at 7:55. Most of the school’s students work in the Center City business district. “It’s exciting to see the students excel at their job tasks,” Fabiszewski said. “They are excited about the fact that not only are they expected to perform in an adult job but that they can. We expect a lot of our students, and they consistently rise to the occasion.”

John McConnell, former board chair at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, president of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, said he was inspired by the Rev. John Foley, a Jesuit priest who founded the Cristo Rey High School in Chicago as a way to provide students with a high-quality education and prepare them for college.

“The average student in our school today comes from a family of four, and their income is $29,000 a year or less,” McConnell said. “We are interested in the students who, if not for us, would have to go to a low-quality school.”

McConnell said that according to recent research by the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, there are about 17,000 eighth graders in Philadelphia, about 12,000 of whom come from low-income families. There are about 19,000 seats available, but of those “only about 7,000 are good seats where the chances of your child going to college are pretty good.”

Students don’t have to be Catholic or Christian to attend Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School. “We call ourselves a Catholic school for students of all faiths,’” McConnell said. “We try to teach our students to act and exhibit the lesson of the Gospel to love your neighbor, and that includes our neighbors of all religions. While we teach Catholic faith and morals in school, we also expose our students to all religions and help them understand and respect all religions.”