Classes already started for about 80 freshmen attending the Cristo Rey Fort Worth High School at Our Mother of Mercy — a campus tucked in a southeast Fort Worth neighborhood that focuses on sending more first-generation students to college by weaving jobs into the school week.
But before Cristo Rey students start delving into math, reading and writing, they have to master job skills such as typing, filing and public speaking during a three-week training program. That’s because students who attend the new school get jobs that help pay for their private tuition through a corporate work-study program.
“Cristo Rey Fort Worth High School is a new private college preparatory Catholic high school that offers affordable private college preparatory high school to families who otherwise couldn’t find access to it,” said John M. Pritchett, president of the school.
The high school replaced Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School, an 87-year-old campus in the Terrell Heights Historic District. It is one of several Texas campuses under the national Cristo Rey Network of schools — a system that touts college enrollment and completion rates. There are campuses in Dallas and Houston.
The program started with a model created in Chicago’s southside 22 years ago, Pritchett said. Fort Worth is the 35th Cristo Rey school, Pritchett said.
The aim is to replace poverty with opportunity.
Qualifying students come from Tarrant County and surrounding areas, including Arlington, Everman and Fort Worth. Students come from families in which the average household income for a family of four is about $37,000 a year.
“Students are earning the cost of their education and out of that also comes confidence, competence, work ethic and that sense of ‘I can overcome the things that life throws at me,’” Pritchett said.
A founding freshman class
The first official day of the academic year is Aug. 9.
The school opens with a founding freshman class and will grow with a new freshman class each year, said Dani Ray Barton, director of the corporate work study program. The first graduating class of Cristo Rey Fort Worth students will be in 2022.
Selection of the next group of Cristo Rey freshmen starts in September with tours of the campus. The admissions process is rigorous and includes applications, recommendation, interviews and placement testing.
At Cristo Rey, students study four days a week and work one to help cover the $16,000-a-year student tuition. They earn $8,000 over 10 months. Donations also help pay for the program, which operates as a nonprofit separate the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth.
Companies pay $32,000 for teams of four students to work at their offices, Pritchett said. Parents pay about 10 percent of the costs (between $50 to $250 based on their means). Community philanthropy covers the gap between student earnings and family contributions, he explained.
Showing student grit
Fourteen-year-old R.J. Williams of Fort Worth wants to be a video game developer, and Cristo Rey offers a path to a future filled with math, patience and computer coding. In the meantime, he is learning to take notes, make charts and build graphs for the job that will pay for his private high school.
Asked why he likes Cristo Rey, Williams responded: “The job part — that’s pretty cool.”
Williams and other Cristo Rey students have been participating in the school’s GRIT Academy; the acronym stands for “Grace, Responsibility, Integrity and Tenacity.” The academy is a three-week program that gets the students ready for their jobs, said Barton.
Students have to successfully pass the academy to attend Cristo Rey. On Aug. 1, students who complete the academy will get blazers and ties to go with their uniforms, Barton said. These will be worn to their jobs.
“I feel it is a great opportunity for us to be here,” said Jackie Gonzales, 14, of Burleson.