When Gregory Damas entered Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School four years ago, he immediately went to work, and the years of internship experience he’s racked up—at the city’s mayor’s office and prestigious accounting firms—is setting him up nicely for his future.
“How many high school students do you know get four internships in four years of high school before they even step foot on a college campus? So that’s insane,” Damas told the Catholic Digest. “I worked at Comcast my freshman year, the mayor’s office of Philadelphia my sophomore year, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ my junior year, and right now (I) work at Deloitte.”
The experience is part of a corporate work-study requirement that makes the Cristo Rey Catholic school unique, both in how it’s financed and the hands-on, real world experiences it offers students. What began as an idea in 1996 to offset the cost of tuition for low income Catholic students in Chicago has become a recipe for success that’s since spawned 32 schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia that make up the Cristo Rey Network.
Catholic Digest reports:
According to Genster, the fundamentals of the Cristo Rey model that contribute to its track record of success revolve around four critical elements: Each Cristo Rey school is authentically Catholic; they have a to-and-through college focus; they offer a rigorous college-preparatory education; and they integrate academics with four years of professional workplace experience through a corporate work-study program.
The corporate work-study program is the defining element that makes the Cristo Rey model unique. Each Cristo Rey student works a full day each week at a local business in an entry-level position, and in turn the business pays the salary to the school to offset the cost of tuition.
In Philadelphia, Catholic school officials shuttered Damas’ former elementary school when he was in the 4th grade, only to walk back into the same building—re-envisioned as Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School—five years later.
He is one of 470 students from low-income families in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, at Cristo Rey, and he’s now applying to Villanova, Drexel, Georgetown, and Fordham universities, to study accounting and financial consulting.
“Many of the students come not recognizing or (they’re) thinking small about what their potential is. If we can help them see that they have enormous potential, enormous talents, and enormous potential to develop themselves—and to develop other students in their class,” said John McConnell, a concerned Catholic who helped to bring the Cristo Rey Network to the city. “That’s when they start to super-accelerate their development.”
The network’s 9,000 students worked with 2,000 businesses in healthcare, law, government, and finance to earn $45 million in 2014 alone, though Cristo Rey Network president Jane Genster points out the experience can be priceless.
The on-the-job training “reinforces both the cognitive and the non-cognitive ability found in the classroom. It demystifies the world outside their neighborhoods,” she said. “It helps teach them 21st-century job skills and expectations, and the why of higher education, and career doors that professional opportunities open to them.”
The unique approach at Cristo Rey schools is what Notre Dame sociologist David Sikkink refers to as “alternative pedagogy” in The Content of Their Character, which summarizes findings from the School Cultures and Student Formation Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
Schools using alternative pedagogy examined by Sikkink shared “a distinctive organization and distinctive practices and orientations that generated a particular context for student moral and civic formation,” while offering “a fairly explicit understanding of student formation goals, which to a large extent were an outgrowth of an alternative vision of the educational task.”
That seems to be the case at Cristo Rey, where McConnell said the “goal is not really to graduate from high school. It’s not even to get into college. And frankly it’s not even just to graduate from college,” he said. “Our goal is to recognize and realize our full potential. That’s a really lofty goal.”
And it’s one Damas seems to embrace. The Catholic Digest reports that he “hopes to give back for all the mentoring he’s received by teaching kids how to manage their finances.”
Internships.com provides a clearinghouse for school officials to help students identify and apply for a wide variety of internship opportunities.
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