Education

This school has kids pay tuition through real work. It’s coming to Miami

Cristo Rey students commonly come into the high school behind in their studies, but the school is designed to help low-income students get caught up and gain professional experience.
Cristo Rey students commonly come into the high school behind in their studies, but the school is designed to help low-income students get caught up and gain professional experience. Courtesy of Rudy Cecchi

When Samara Quinones of Hollywood was growing up in the Bronx, her single mother worked two jobs to afford the family’s tiny apartment and her children’s education, insisting they attend private schools to get what she considered the best education possible.

Then her mother read in the newspaper about a new private school in Harlem called Cristo Rey, a school for low-income students with a unique approach to funding: a required professional internship program that allows students to earn wages toward their own high school tuition.

Quinones applied, was accepted, then enrolled.

Now at 26 — 12 years later — she has her master’s degree and is a guidance counselor encouraging low-income students in South Florida so that they too, can succeed. And she’s working to bring a Cristo Rey school to Miami.

Samara
Samara Quinones, a Cristo Rey alumna from New York, holds her two college degrees from St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. She now lives in Hollywood and works as a guidance counselor. Emily L. Mahoney emahoney@miamiherald.com

“Cristo Rey prepared me not just for the university and the work environment, but for life as well,” Quinones said. “They’ve taught me to ... always be present, always make that next move, and when there’s one opportunity other opportunities follow. They’ve taught me to always be a positive role model and to always give back.”

The Miami school is slated to open in August 2020, but Quinones and others are already working to spread the word to students, parents and Miami businesses that could offer internships to the high schoolers. The school’s location has not been decided yet.

Cristo Rey is a nonprofit network of Catholic schools with 32 campuses nationally, including one in Tampa. Although the schools have a religious curriculum, students don’t have to be Catholic to attend as long as they can legally work in the United States and their family falls below a certain income threshold. This threshold is determined using a formula that compares household income with city and national statistics, but the average family income for Cristo Rey students nationally is $35,000. Most of Cristo Rey’s students are Hispanic or African American.

The school also specializes in helping students who are behind in their studies get caught up through study halls and a rigorous curriculum, according to Rudy Cecchi, who was a board member for Cristo Rey in New York and is now working to establish the Miami school.

Students’ tuition is paid for via a combination of the internship wages, vouchers or tax credits, private donations and payments from the students’ families. Nationally, the average family contribution is $1,000 per year but students are not turned away because of an inability to pay, Cecchi said.

Working with students in low-income families, they think that they don’t have opportunities. ... They don’t believe in themselves.

Samara Quinones, Cristo Rey alumna, now a guidance counselor

Cristo Rey advocates and alumni tout the internship program as not only a funding source, but also a way for kids from low-income families to learn professional skills and envision themselves in jobs that require college degrees. According to Cristo Rey’s website, 90 percent of the schools’ alumni enroll in college — a rate 1.4 times higher than low-income high school graduates overall.

Quinones said through her work as a counselor at Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School in Little Haiti, she has seen the need for mentorship among low-income students that Cristo Rey can provide.

“Cristo Rey led me to who I am today because of the importance of succeeding and having those high expectations and having our teachers believe in us, having the staff believe in us, having our place of work environment believe in us,” she said. “Working with students in low-income families, they think that they don’t have opportunities. ... They don’t believe in themselves.”

While Quinones attended Cristo Rey, she worked at a top law firm and investment company in New York, making copies, preparing presentations and taking meeting minutes. All students are in rotations so they work one or two days a week without missing class.

In Miami, several big names have already expressed interest in helping the school get up and running. Former Gov. Jeb Bush and his wife have agreed to be honorary board members, and several employers have said they’ll offer internships to the students. The Miami Cristo Rey team is pushing to get 35 companies to commit to the internship program before the school opens.

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Joseph Fernandez, president of BNY Mellon’s Florida operations, poses for a photo in the banking and investment company’s Miami office on Brickell Avenue. He said he plans to offer internships to Cristo Rey high schoolers when the school opens in 2020. Emily L. Mahoney emahoney@miamiherald.com

Joseph Fernandez, president of the Florida operations of BNY Mellon, a worldwide banking and investment services company, said he plans on employing a few students as interns at the state’s Miami headquarters on Brickell Avenue. The bank previously had a college intern who was a graduate of Cristo Rey, and has since added her to their staff.

“Folks have talked about brain drain here in the past and it would be wonderful if we could create this connection where people want to stay and see the value of the different industries that we have here and do that by also helping young people to face the challenges of the business world,” he said.

Victor Mendelson, president of HEICO Inc., an aerospace and electronics company headquartered in Hollywood, said he too is enthusiastic for his company to join Cristo Rey’s internship program. He and his wife donated $10,000 to the Miami school, he said.

“I’m a Jewish guy, so it’s not a religious issue, it’s an issue of helping people help themselves,” Mendelson said, adding that the program helps employers as well. “I think it gives employers ambitious, diligent, serious young people to add to their work force, people who have come from some measure of adversity who don’t take their work for granted.”

Cecchi said the school is aiming to accept around 125 students into their first class, resulting in 400 to 450 kids in the whole school by 2024. He said the Miami school will likely have classes taught in both English and Spanish.

I think it gives employers ambitious, diligent, serious young people to add to their work force, people who have come from some measure of adversity who don’t take their work for granted.

Victor Mendelson, president of HEICO Inc.

The Cristo Rey team in Miami has already started surveying students and parents through forms distributed in English, Spanish and Creole to evaluate the needs of prospective students. Official student recruitment and enrollment will begin in August 2019. Students who apply will undergo a series of interviews to evaluate their willingness to balance Cristo Rey’s work-school demands.

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