DePaul Cristo Rey’s Secret

The school’s work-study program unlocks college success for low-income students One of Cincinnati’s best-kept secrets in education is bursting at the seams.

DePaul Cristo Rey High School, which helps low-income students prepare for and earn college degrees, will break ground this spring on the first phase of a $19.5 million expansion at its Clifton campus.

The grades 9-12 college prep school has 325 students enrolled this year from 37 area communities from Butler County to Northern Kentucky.

“Our school has been too small since we reached 280 students,” says Sr. Jeanne Bessette, president and CEO. “One of the first places you see it is in the cafeteria [which was designed for 60 students]. Expansion will give us the capacity to handle 400 to 425 students.”

The Cincinnati Sisters of Charity launched the school named for St. Vincent de Paul seven years ago in Cincinnati. It is part of the national Cristo Rey network of high schools that now number more than 30 across the country.

The school’s two-year building plan calls for adding a new gym and larger cafeteria in the parking lot of the former Concordia Lutheran Church and elementary school. Once that’s completed, a new three-story academic wing will be added and temporary classroom buildings will be removed to restore parking on the 10-acre site.

What makes DePaul Cristo Rey’s college prep program unique is its work-study program that allows students to earn about half their high school tuition.

Four days a week, the students attend classes like other high school students, but one day a week they’re out in the community working at one of more than 125 corporate partners ranging from accounting firms to health care and social service providers. The money they earn is considered scholarship money by the U.S. Department of Labor and paid to the school to underwrite their tuition.

The work-study program is DePaul Cristo Rey’s “secret sauce,” says John Moster, shareholder-in-charge at the accounting firm Clark Schaefer Hackett, which has employed DePaul Cristo Rey students for the last five years.

Sakura Perry, a 17-year-old College Hill junior, is now in her second year working at Clark Schaefer. She says she works a lot with Microsoft Excel software, does filing, and works on invoices and putting projects together for the firm.

“You’d think doing paperwork all day would be boring but it’s not,” she says.

Sakura, whose older brother and sister also attended DePaul Cristo Rey, already has college goals.

“I want to double major in law and accounting,” she says. “I’ve learned to like accounting.”

After this year’s work-study program ends, Clark Schaefer has hired Perry to work for them this summer.

“These students are the best selling point this school has,” Moster says. “They are unbelievable.”

Moster says when he was first approached about becoming a corporate partner he declined.

“I wasn’t convinced there was a return on investment,” he says. It costs a corporate partner $29,000 this year to hire a team of four students.

But after participating in the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s Leadership Cincinnati Class 36 in 2012-13 studying the city’s poverty issues and becoming friends with Bessette he changed his mind.

“We expect these students to work and perform at a high level and add value. They actually do,” says Moster, who now serves on DePaul Cristo Rey’s board.

“And there’s more to it than that,” he says. “We feel like we’re doing something to help change the community. We’re also helping change a child’s life as well and that’s incredibly rewarding.”

One measure of DePaul Cristo Rey’s success is that all the students in its first three graduating classes were accepted at a four-year college.

“A four-year college acceptance is important to us,” says Bessette. “We’re learning across the Cristo Rey network that our kids have much better odds of finishing college if they start and finish at a four-year college.”

None of DePaul Cristo Rey’s graduates have been in college long enough to graduate. But nationally Cristo Rey graduates are 2.5 times more likely to finish college than other low-income students, it says.

To make sure its graduates finish college, DePaul Cristo Rey has launched a College Success Program to help them cope with the college challenges they face.

“One of our kids’ handicaps is that for the most part they don’t have people in their families who’ve navigated college,” says Bessette “We thought, ‘What could we do prevent kids from dropping out of college if we only knew there was an issue earlier?’ Sometimes we don’t find out until it’s too late.”

Larisa Wright, who’s worked in college access programs at Mt. St. Joseph and Miami universities, is director of the College Success Program.

“I’m a traveling academic support,” she says, visiting the 27 colleges where DePaul Cristo Rey students are enrolled, offering advice, fielding financial aid questions and helping them connect with resources.

“It’s really about being proactive to solve issues that could take them out of college,” she says.

As part of its fundraising for the expansion, DePaul Cristo Rey is also raising money to create an endowment fund to provide small grants to graduates who need financial help while in college.

“We’re not naïve, poverty doesn’t go away when our kids go to college,” says Margee Garbsch, school spokeswoman.

“One example was a student last semester whose father died. She was planning to drop out of college and earn some money for his burial,” says Bessette. “But if she left college the odds aren’t good that she’d return. So we figured out the cremation cost and she paid half and we paid half and we kept her in college.”

The school has paid other non-education expenses for graduates.

“We’ve paid for a bus ride to and from school, bought students food and found an apartment one summer for young man who was homeless,” says Bessette. “It’s not only tuition, a lot of people don’t get that.”

This year DePaul Cristo Rey will add another 65 students to the 120 graduates it has in college.

The College Success Program, Bessette says, “is a program we’re going to need to grow.”

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