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cristo rey25On this particular Tuesday afternoon in May, Rishaun Hall is in no mood to talk. The 16-year-old sophomore has already had three tests in the morning. As he first takes his seat in science lab, he drops his head into his crossed arms. After a few seconds, however, Hall sits up, grabs a pen and begins scribbling notes on a set of index cards. He was preparing for his biggest assignment yet. In three days’ time, he and three of his classmates must deliver a 15-minute presentation to Mayor Michael Nutter. Hall goes to Cristo Rey Philadelphia, a college-prep high school in North Philadelphia where all students, through the school’s work-study program, take on professional internships at businesses, universities and nonprofits—even the mayor’s office—in addition to their usual coursework.

Every student at the school works five days out of every month at these work-study positions, which include places like PricewaterhouseCoopers, Temple University and the Philadelphia Zoo. On work days, they arrive at school, but just to report in before heading back out into the city. Hall and two classmates run through a PowerPoint they’ve assembled for Friday’s Presentation Day, an overview of everything they’ve learned this year. The other member of their group is only missing because it’s his day to work at City Hall. Each takes a turn explaining different facets of their internship. At this point in their practice, they rarely need to glance down at their index cards of notes. Hall, a seasoned veteran from working at City Hall his freshman year, is talking now, explaining several of the jobs they had to perform: scouring for newspaper clips for the press office, answering phones for the chief of staff, helping to organize Philadelphia S.W.A.G. Week. He tells a story about Kyron Banks, an aide to Mayor Nutter, who taught him how to properly tie the gold-and-blue necktie he’s wearing with his white Oxford and Cristo Rey V-neck sweater. Before, Hall explains, he used to loosen his tie and hang it on his bedroom doorknob. He looks straight ahead, raises his voice and acts like he’s already speaking to a room of city officials.

President John McConnell with student Cildayjah McLaughlin

President John McConnell with student Cildayjah McLaughlin

“I learned how to project my voice to the point where if I need to talk, you will listen,” says Hall, sounding every bit as commanding as the injunction he just uttered. The confidence Hall displays is exactly why school officials tout the work-study program as Cristo Rey’s distinguishing mark. Focusing on so-called soft skills outside the classroom, they say, ensures that when school ends on June 24—every school year lasts 202 days—students will be able to communicate effectively to people years their senior, make eye contact when speaking, know their way around computer programs like Microsoft Office and meet influential mentors. “The entire school and academic scheduling is built around work study,” says Bob Fabiszewski, a private equity veteran of 30 years who directs Cristo Rey’s work-study program. “A 14-year-old kid learning how to ask their supervisor a question when they don’t understand the assignment—that’s important.”

Network of schools

Opened in August 2012, Cristo Rey Philadelphia is the 25th school in a network of Catholic Cristo Rey high schools scattered about the U.S. The school occupies the former premises of the old elementary school connected to Our Lady of Hope Church on the 5200 block of North Broad Street. Cristo Rey, Spanish for Christ the King, got its start in Chicago in 1996, the invention of a Jesuit priest, the Rev. John Foley. Not every school is associated with the Jesuit order—Philadelphia’s Cristo Rey is co-endorsed by the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. While most faculty members are laypeople, three IHM sisters are on staff. But each Cristo Rey high school follows the format Father Foley pioneered.

One cornerstone of that format is the work-study program. The other? Every accepted student is poor. “I like to say we’re a very, very exclusive school, and your kids can’t go,” says school President John McConnell, a former Deloitte employee of 27 years. McConnell, who met Rev. Foley about a decade ago, says he “stirred the waters” to bring a Cristo Rey school to Philadelphia in 2011. Since then, he has taken it on as his mission. “When it came time to find a president, I couldn’t find someone who had the same passion to do this as I did,” he says. “We can completely change the lives of the kids who graduate from this school.”

Class at Cristo Rey

Class at Cristo Rey

A majority of Cristo Rey Philadelphia’s 230 freshmen and sophomores—the school has been adding a grade each year—live in the lower-income sections of northwest and northeast Philadelphia. Another portion is from West Philly. Five of its students are shuttled by van from Camden every weekday. The average household income of students’ families is just above $29,000 a year. As a result, the work-study component does have a practical application. Parents chip in about 10 percent of the $12,000 it costs to educate one Cristo Rey student. Businesses and foundations donate another 30 percent through the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program.

Paid internships

But the rest—more than $7,000, McConnell says—comes from the time students spend at paid internships and jobs at 45 different companies in the Philadelphia area, connections available thanks to McConnell’s and Fabiszewski’s networks of business contacts. Teams of four students work the same job over the course of the year—the equivalent to a $30,000 full-time job. While the money earned keeps the doors of Cristo Rey open, the experience students have is far more important. “The work program is not an extracurricular activity,” McConnell says. “It’s fundamental to the school.”

Case in point: Every freshman and sophomore at Cristo Rey attends a three-week business “boot camp” in August, where they learn business etiquette—handshakes between students and faculty are common in Cristo Rey’s culture—and different computer programs. Cildayjah McLaughlin, 16, who also spent her freshmen and sophomore year working at City Hall, has dreams of attending the U.S. Naval Academy. She says the job training not only taught her how to interact with adults, but also how to rely on herself, something she knows she must do if she’s to become a naval officer. “At work you’re kind of independent,” she says. “You have to infer what to do if no one’s around. It gives you a sense of how to be by yourself.”

Cildayjah McLaughlin heads to class

Cildayjah McLaughlin heads to class

Lizbeth Guaman, a 15-year-old sophomore, says her job working in the marketing department at Comcast scanning, faxing and filing has made her more extroverted. “When I first started Cristo Rey, I used to be really shy, but now I feel like I’m more outgoing,” says the South Philly resident. It’s a benefit to her in class. In-classroom exercises are light on rote textbook-teaching, and instead call for constant stimulation and participation. “Cold-calling” on unaware students is a regular occurrence, and 50-minute class periods are broken up into “do now” activities, “activators” that call upon previously learned knowledge, and learning goals for the day.

A favorite acronym of 10th-grade theology teacher Flannery O’Connor is CBSWBAT: college-bound students will be able to. “They won’t just push a worksheet in front of your face,” says Hall, who adds that working his job at the mayor’s office lets him come up for air between the two hours of nightly homework and eight college-prep classes. He calls Cristo Rey “stressful,” but adds that he appreciates the rigor since “you work in college.” And at Cristo Rey Philadelphia, that’s how students ought to feel. Skills learned through the work-study program should help get every graduating senior into a four-year college. If the record of other Cristo Reys serves as a guide, it is an approach that pays dividends.

In 2013, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore reported that 80 percent of its 2011 graduating class of 78 seniors were heading into their third year of college. The Cristo Rey network reports that 90 percent of Cristo Rey students overall who graduated between 2008 and 2012 are enrolled in college. “You’re getting somewhere, and you’re doing something,” Hall says after his group finishes running through their Presentation Day slides a second time. He then looks to his fellow classmates around the room practicing their presentations and finishes his thought: “We’re getting somewhere.”

Photos by Maria Pouchnikova