Two decades ago, the Rev. John P. Foley pondered a difficult problem: how to provide a private college-prep education for low-income students with scant resources.
Then, Foley said, he heard the voice of God in the form of a consultant.
What if every student has a job?
What a powerful concept, Foley recalled thinking, noting last week how the idea turned into “the Cristo Rey movement.”
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By fall 2018, Cristo Rey Fort Worth High School at Our Mother of Mercy will open with 135 freshmen. The new school will sit on the site of the former Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School in the Terrell Heights neighborhood, where it will add a new class each year until it become a four-year high school with 550 students.
Nationwide, 32 Cristo Rey schools now make up a network of campuses where low-income students prepare for college while paying for their own private school tuition. Cristo Rey schools partner with businesses in cities from Portland, Ore., to Tampa, Fla., to offer academics with on-the-job training.
$2.6 millionfundraising campaign earmark for Fort Worth Cristo Rey campus
Foley touts the program’s success, explaining that its students typically start high school at the seventh-grade level and graduate ready for college. About 90 percent of Cristo Rey’s graduates enroll in two- and four-year colleges and universities, according to the network’s 2015 annual report.
“This is not our work; it’s the Lord’s work, and there is no stopping it,” said Foley, who with his team opened the first Cristo Rey campus in Chicago in 1996.
We started this because there was so much talent going to waste.
Father John P. Foley, Founder, Chair Emeritus and Chief Mission Officer of the Cristo Rey Network
Fort Worth Diocese Bishop Michael Olson said church and school leaders want to help students who stand on the margins of society while also maintaining the legacy of stewardship and service left by Our Mother of Mercy, which had a tradition of educating minority working-class families.
“It offers us hope,” Olson said. “It offers us an opportunity to come together as a community.”
‘You have to want to come here’
Today’s seventh-grade students can be tomorrow’s inaugural freshmen class at Cristo Rey Fort Worth.
The new school will become the third Catholic high school in Fort Worth, joining Nolan and Cassata, which will continue to serve their unique student populations, Olson said. Nolan is a college prep school, while Cassata serves students who benefit from smaller classrooms and one-on-one learning.
Cristo Rey Fort Worth will be funded through the work-study program, fundraising and a family fee of about $1,000. Classrooms will be inside the 17,000-square-foot former Our Mother of Mercy, or OMM, which stopped operating in May. That school, which served students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, had been experiencing lower enrollments as the cost of private education increased, said Michael Barks, former school president.
But the spirit of the school, which opened in 1929 and counts Ralph McCloud, a former Fort Worth City Council member, as an alumnus, will be part of the new campus, in both name and mission, Barks said.
“We know that it is going to continue,” said Barks, who serves on the Cristo Rey feasibility study committee.
Plans are to add more classroom space on vacant land on 3.5 acres the school owns, said Charlie Morrison, president and CEO of WingStop, who chairs the school’s feasibility study and is helping raise the resources needed for the project.
Morrison said a $2.6 million fundraising campaign is under way to help support the project. So far, $1.6 million has been raised. Funds to cover additional capital costs will be raised, but that amount is not yet known, Morrison said.
Organizers are also trying to get commitments from companies to hire their students. The project has 22 commitments for jobs, Morrison said.
35 local job commitments sought for local work-study program
The Fort Worth campus will begin taking student applications next year. The key criteria is that applicants show an economic need, Foley said. Students must come from families that earn $35,000 a year or less.
There are no territory boundaries or religious restrictions, organizers said, noting that about 40 percent of Cristo Rey students are not Catholic. Instead, Foley said, the school is looking for employable young people with a drive to learn and succeed.
“You have to want to come here,” Foley said. “If you want this, we will make this work.”
‘Cristo Rey allows us to break barriers’
Cristo Rey, a nonprofit, works in urban neighborhoods to develop a network of employers that pays $32,000 a year to employ a team of four students each year. Each teen works one day during the school week. The salary pays a large part of the school cost.
“All of our kids have jobs,” Foley said. “All of our students are our employees.”
About 70 percent of each school’s operating costs are covered by the work-study program, organizers said.
Fifteen-year-old America Rodriguez is in her second year at Cristo Rey Dallas College Prep.
The campus, in Pleasant Grove, opened to freshmen last school year. Since then, Rodriguez has juggling academics with office and data entry duties at a Santander Bank. She’s improved her Microsoft Office Excel abilities, learned the importance of looking people in the eye and learned how to compose professional emails.
$35,000the annual household income limit for student applicants
“When we go to work, we don’t really miss class,” said Rodriguez, explaining that she has been able balance school and work.
Patty Lowell, director of communications at Cristo Rey Dallas, said students fill out a timecard and supervisors sign off on their hours and comment on their job performance.
“These are real jobs,” Lowell said.
The experience is helping Rodriguez make higher-education plans that might include psychology.
“I think Texas needs more schools like Cristo Rey,” Rodriguez said. “Cristo Rey allows us to break barriers.”
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.