Fort Worth

New Catholic high school in Fort Worth to offer path out of poverty

Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School will transition into a college prep high school. Michael Barks president of Our is Mother of Mercy Catholic School.
Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School will transition into a college prep high school. Michael Barks president of Our is Mother of Mercy Catholic School. Star-Telegram

A new Catholic preparatory high school planned for southeast Fort Worth in 2018 aims to steer more low-income students to college.

The high school will replace the existing Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School, an 87-year-old campus in the Terrell Heights Historic District. The new school’s name will be Cristo Rey Fort Worth High School at Our Mother of Mercy. It will be the third Texas campus under the national Cristo Rey Network of schools — a system that touts college enrollment and completion rates.

“I think there is a lot of excitement about it,” said Erin Vader, president of Nolan Catholic High School, who is serving on the project’s feasibility study committee.

The first high school in the Cristo Rey Network was founded by the Jesuits in 1996 in Chicago.

Work is underway to raise at least $2.6 million for operating and capital costs, said Alma Hernandez-Blackwell, feasibility study coordinator for the Fort Worth project. Organizers are also trying to obtain at least 35 letters of intent to help from businesses.

Sixth-grade students who may want to be included in the first freshman class have been surveyed.

Vader said the project will build on traditions that began at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School, 1007 E. Terrell Ave., which offers pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade classes to students from low-income and working-class families. The project is expected to promote a path out of poverty through education.

“It’s the same mission,” Vader said. “It had just grown up a little bit.”

A new beginning

The Diocese of Fort Worth announced plans last week for the transition to the new school.

30 Cristo Rey schools in the network

The first Cristo Rey school was established by Father John Foley in 1996 in Chicago, said Hernandez-Blackwell. The schools only accept students living at or below the poverty level and are open to students of all faiths.

There are campuses in Houston and Dallas.

The Cristo Rey campus in Fort Worth will start with a freshman class in 2018 and then add a grade each year, Hernandez-Blackwell said. The school will have about 500 students in four high school grades. Applications will be accepted in summer 2017.

The Cristo Rey model has been successful in 30 other cities, said Pat Svacina, spokesman for the diocese. One component is a work-study program that allows students to pay for a portion of tuition through jobs in the community.

Cristo Rey, a nonprofit organization, works in urban neighborhoods to develop a team of employers that pays $32,000 a year to employ a team of four Cristo Rey students each year. Each teen works one day during the school week. The salary pays a large part of the school cost.

The educational template allows students to understand how to balance academics with work, Hernandez-Blackwell said.

Other contributions, such as private grants, also help, according to the diocese. The network has 46 university partners, including DePaul, Georgetown and Boston College.

Svacina said the campus would complement Nolan Catholic High School and Cassata High School. Nolan enrollment won’t be impacted significantly because many Cristo Rey students will come from southeast Fort Worth and have families whose income is below $35,000 a year, he said. Cassata specializes in students with unique needs, such as young mothers, he said.

Shayne Evans, senior managing partner at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, said Cristo Rey’s format puts the focus on college success instead of testing. High school students from working-class or low-income families are exposed to resources proven to work at upscale private schools or successful public schools, such as internship-style programs and strong academic counseling.

Cristo Rey’s work-study program helps students believe they have invested in their own futures and control their destinies, Evans said. “They have a sense that they can succeed.”

A long history

Catholic diocese leaders said the new campus will build on the goals of Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School. Leaders said the planned campus will be a good fit in the neighborhood.

“Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School, through generous service of its parishioners, priests, teachers, parents and the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate, has educated and formed many community leaders in Fort Worth and beyond,” Bishop Michael F. Olson said in a statement, adding that the mission will continue under Cristo Rey.

The Cristo Rey Network is excited about the possibility of opening a school in Fort Worth, one of the fastest-growing cities in America.

Brian D. Melton, chief network growth officer and general counsel.

Our Mother of Mercy, also known as OMM, is already under transition.

Teachers and staff are expected to go to other Catholic schools in the diocese, Svacina said.

The diocesan school superintendent, OMM president and principal have been meeting with families. They will help families enroll in other Catholic schools for the fall 2016 semester, including St. Rita Catholic School on Weiler Boulevard and Our Lady of Victory Catholic School on Hemphill Street.

“If the family wants to try another school other than Catholic, the team will help with finding the best school possible for the student,” Svacina said.

OMM has had declining enrollment in recent years even as the diocese invested in a new building for the school, replacing an unrepairable structure in 2008. The school also struggled economically as it relied on scholarships and contributions to fund school operations.

The school will be renovated.

OMM sits in the Terrell Heights Historic District and is well-known to people who grew up in the historically African-American neighborhood. The school was established in 1929 and served many African-American, Protestant students. In recent years, the school’s demographics have been shifting from African-American to Hispanic, said Olga Ferris, a former principal.

The school received considerable support from the church next door and the diocese, Ferris said.

“The school was very important,” Ferris said. “It was a stable organization for that community.”

Ferris said she is glad the new campus will focus on serving working-class families who want their youngsters to go to college.

Vader said putting the Cristo Rey campus in the Terrell Heights area signals that there will be continued support for the neighborhood from the diocese.

“For the diocese and Cristo Rey to remain committed to that community makes a really powerful statement,” Vader said.

Nationwide, an estimated 1.9 million students are enrolled in Catholic schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Non-Catholics make up 16.9 percent of the total enrollment at 328,690. Catholic school trend data indicate that enrollment has been dropping. Between 2005 and 2015, a total of 1,648 schools closed or consolidated.

The Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, which is made up of 28 counties, has 4,327 students in elementary schools and 1,168 students in high schools. There are four Catholic high schools in the diocese: Nolan, Cassata, Notre Dame in Wichita Falls and Sacred Heart in Munster.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

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