It’s August 19, 2019, and for the leadership of Cristo Rey, everything is going according to plan.
The high school, first founded by Jesuits in Chicago in 1995 with a unique model that combines Catholic-infused classroom instruction with real-world work experience, was opening its doors, making the Richmond school its 37th in the country and putting 95 rising ninth graders – each from a family of limited means – on a rigorous path to college.
Getting to that day, hurdles were hurdled. Local visionaries raised the prerequisite $2.5 million to support the school. Bon Secours signed on as its obligatory religious sponsor. Recruitment of school leadership was complete. Faculty and staff were hired. A building was secured, the former Benedictine High School on N. Sheppard Street.
And finally, that first class of wide-eyed and uniformed 14-year-olds – graduates of 34 different middle schools from throughout the region – was walking through campus doors.
School doors were not the only ones swinging wide to Cristo Rey students that week. As part of its pre-opening preparations, the school secured partnerships with 25 companies throughout Greater Richmond. Each company – big ones like Dominion Energy and Owens & Minor, as well as more modest businesses like Bliley’s and Woodfin – agreed to sponsor groups of four students, putting them to work in their offices one day per week and giving them the kind of real-world work experience that otherwise might seem an other-worldly dream.
“When they graduate, students will have four years of work experience under their belts,” says Amy McCracken, director of corporate work study at Cristo Rey Richmond. “They will have the living skills and soft skills needed to succeed in college.”
The Cristo Rey model is no doubt working. Over the past quarter-century, the school boasts a 100% college acceptance rate, meaning that every student has been accepted to at least one college. What’s more, some 56 colleges and universities offer Cristo Rey graduates scholarships to help them continue their studies.
The financial commitment from each company: $34,000. It represents the students’ de facto compensation for their in-office work, “salaries” that, in turn, cover their tuition and expenses, including transportation (to and from school, to and from their employers), uniforms, meals and academic supplies.
So, during the fall of 2019, Cristo Rey’s first semester in Richmond went pretty much according to script. Then came last spring. The school – like every other school in Virginia and beyond – was staring down the grave reality of a pandemic. Suddenly, the model that had been perfected over the past 25 years, that scholastic-corporate collaboration that made a private education possible for students with financial hardships, was facing an existential threat.
While most schools were focusing simply on how to educate students remotely, Cristo Rey had a compounded challenge: How could it maintain its work-study component with students confined to their homes? And perhaps even more concerning: Could they count on its corporate partners to maintain their commitment, even without students coming to their offices?
Then, as McCracken explains, “something incredible happened.”
Cristo Rey went about turning challenges into opportunities. They shifted students’ focus from on-the-job work experience to business training, using remote platforms to give students the chance to learn real-world business tools, like Excel training, business literacy and issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion.
“The company partners really stepped up,” McCracken said. “We even had trainers at Microsoft in California getting up early in the morning West Coast time to train students in Excel. We now have ninth graders who are on their way to being certified in Microsoft programs, so we’ve really taken advantage of this new reality. We’ve really filled in the gaps.”
Students also had regular sessions with diversity and inclusion officers at various companies, leading to frank discussions (and some hard questions) about why such issues are important to businesses.
“The whole idea is to keep students in front of our company partners so they won’t forget them, to keep them engaged in a productive and meaningful way,” McCracken said.
But the good news didn’t stop there. Even though students were no longer contributing in the office, almost all of the companies maintained their financial commitment to the program, a critical gesture that allows the Cristo Rey model to persevere through the pandemic.
“Richmond has been amazing,” McCracken said. “The Corporate Work Study Program has received more than $700,000 from Richmond companies without one student going to work.”
As Cristo Rey focuses on recruiting next year’s freshman class – its third in three years – it’s indebted to these company partners for their support, especially when things haven’t always gone the way they originally planned.