Building a Dream Team

Loyola partnership opens doors for Cristo Rey Jesuit High School students

By George P. Matysek, Jr., ’94  |  Photos courtesy of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School

James Lambert, Cristo Rey, ’12, will attend Loyola University Maryland this fall.

Every year the nation’s top college football prospects bask in the national spotlight when their high schools host hoopla-filled rites of passage known as “signing days.”

There were no superstar quarterbacks or linemen in the house when Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in East Baltimore hosted its signing day June 1.

There was still plenty of joy inside a packed gymnasium, however, as six of the small school’s academic standouts affixed their signatures to letters naming their future universities.

The beaming students, all from low-income families, faced waves of applause as they held aloft sweatshirts emblazoned with names such as “Loyola University Maryland,” “Goucher College,” and “St. Joseph’s University.”

“Cristo Rey has been like a family to me,” said Amanda Garcia, a 17-year-old senior who signed with Loyola University Maryland with dreams of becoming a pediatrician. “It helped me to see there are a lot of people willing to help, and you just have to have faith to achieve your goals.”

Part of a national network of Cristo Rey schools that combine a college-preparatory curriculum with an internship program, Baltimore’s Cristo Rey is changing lives.

One hundred percent of last year’s first graduating class was accepted into college and 90 percent are returning for their second year. Cristo Rey officials expect that next year, 95 companies will offer internships for an enrollment that should reach 340.

SHARING A MISSION

Since Cristo Rey’s inception more than five years ago, Loyola has been one of the key partners in its mission.

Dozens of Loyola students volunteer at Cristo Rey as tutors and sports coaches every year. Loyola serves as an internship site, allowing teens to experience the professional world by working in clerical and other office positions. Teachers from Cristo Rey audit courses from Loyola for free and have access to discounted degree programs.

Hundreds of the books donated to Cristo Rey’s library are a gift from Loyola’s education department. Last year, Loyola’s biology honor society brought surplus laboratory supplies to Cristo Rey to conduct dissections and other experiments with the students.

Rev. John Swope, S.J., Cristo Rey’s founding president, believes the partnership with Loyola is indispensable.

“Our school provides a message of hope for our city,” Fr. Swope said. “I think the core message for everyone involved in education—public and Catholic—is that students in the city can excel and really expand their horizons if they are provided the right kind of program.”

Families of Cristo Rey students pay tuition based on their financial ability, with approximately 75 percent paying $750 or less per year. Students earn approximately $6,250 every year from the school’s sponsors, offsetting the cost of their education. They spend five days each month working in entry-level placements at institutions such as Loyola, Catholic Relief Services, Good Samaritan Hospital, Johns Hopkins University, Legg Mason, and M&T Bank.

WHOLE NEW WORLD

When Cristo Rey opened its doors for the first time, Fr. Swope recalled seeing a freshman lingering outside. The teen wouldn’t enter the school, Fr. Swope said, because he didn’t know how to tie his uniform necktie.

Deon Smith, Cristo Rey '12, on graduation day

“So, there we were out on a sidewalk tying this young fella’s tie—teaching him to tie a simple knot,” Fr. Swope said. “By coming to the school, he entered a professional world that he might not have had access to.”

Megan Reiter, ’15, volunteers as a tutor at Cristo Rey through the University’s Center for Community Service and Justice (CCSJ).

“I worked with a young lady who didn’t really want to do it,” said Reiter, a speech-language pathology student and a graduate of St. Mary’s High School in Annapolis, Md. “I was frustrated with her because I knew she was capable of learning algebra, even though she thought she couldn’t.”

Reiter was able to break through by focusing on building up the student’s confidence.

“That was at the heart of it,” she remembered. “We need to get kids to feel good about themselves and realize that they can learn.”

Ruben Torres, ’15, a member of Cristo Rey’s first graduating class, received help with his homework from Loyola volunteers at Cristo Rey. The engineering student now serves as a Cristo Rey math tutor himself.

“The school did a lot for me to prepare me for college and I wanted to pay them back,” said Torres, who arrived at Cristo Rey after his mother was killed in an automobile accident. “They really care about the students. When you need help, they are always there.”

OVERCOMING ODDS

Dennis McCunney, ’98, CCSJ’s associate director for administration and ongoing service, oversees the student volunteer coordinator managing the 30 Loyola undergraduates who volunteer for Cristo Rey each semester. About half earn academic credit through co-curricular service.

“This experience gives them a chance to see how another school might operate and shows them the kinds of challenges students in urban areas may face,” he said, noting that volunteers receive training to become tutors. “I think it shows them the dedication of the parents and families trying to overcome some significant odds. It’s eye-opening for them.”

Last semester, volunteers from an advanced writing seminar produced a tutoring manual that will be used by future Loyola volunteers, McCunney said. Both schools work hard at making the partnership a two-way street, he said, maintaining high standards about volunteer skills and behavior.

“When universities partner with nonprofits, it can be a power imbalance,” McCunney said. “We’ve been intentional about leveling out the power and seeing each other as equals.”

Witnessing her students sign with respected universities was a powerful moment for Kate Volpe, ’06, who has taught theology at Cristo Rey for three years.

“I’m in awe of them,” said Volpe. “They’ve made me very proud. What the future holds for them is what the future holds for us.”

James Lambert, Cristo Rey '12

James Lambert was one of Volpe’s students. Because of his premature birth, he suffered delayed speech, and his mother died when he was 4. He was at the front of Cristo Rey’s gymnasium during the signing ceremony—committing to Loyola and offering advice to his peers about college preparation.

“I’m so proud of him because of the many obstacles he’s had to overcome,” said Yvonne Frentz, Lambert’s guardian. “I think about how he couldn’t speak, and now he’s selected to speak in
front of corporate sponsors. That’s just amazing.”

Lambert said his experience working in Cristo Rey’s internship program helped raise his social skills.

“Because of that program, I can socialize with all kinds of people,” said Lambert, who hopes to become an engineer. “I’ve grown out of my shell and I just feel a lot more confident.”

HERE TO STAY

Fr. Swope sees the partnership between Loyola and Cristo Rey, which received the University’s Milch Award recognizing superior achievement by an organization involved in service at Loyola’s 2011 Commencement Exercises, getting stronger at a time when Catholic education is faced with significant challenges in the city.

“The Maryland Jesuits have planted a flag out on the corner of Chester Street and Eastern Avenue,” he said. “We are taking on a great Jesuit tradition of forming men and women for others—not only in our historic high schools of great tradition, but here in the city, too.
We are here to stay.”

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