Filling in the Gaps

 Filling in the Gaps

DePaul Cristo Rey High School is providing microgrants to help its alumni graduate from collegeCorinne Minard DePaul Cristo Rey High School, a Catholic high school for students who can’t afford other private schools, is on a mission. “Our mission is solely to get kids into college and then to give them whatever support we’re able to,” says Sister Jeanne Bessette, school president.

The school may be most known in the Tristate for its corporate work-study program, in which students work five days a month in professional offices throughout the region to gain real work experience, but its Graduate Success program is what is setting the school apart. DPCR follows its students after they graduate, providing them with advice or a sympathetic ear when needed. But what is truly different about the program, even from the other 37 schools in the Cristo Rey Network, is that it is providing microgrants to former students to help them complete their education.

It all started when Bessette heard from students who graduated from the high school but were considering dropping out of college because of unexpected fees they couldn’t afford to cover.

“One of our first college-going students was dropping out during first semester at college and, when we probed it a little bit with the student, it was because of a $50 fee they didn’t know they had,” says Bessette. “You can have all the planning in the world but if you literally pull out your pocket and it’s empty, no plan in the world is going to help.”

DePaul Cristo Rey boasts a 60% college enrollment rate for its graduates (higher than the 40% national average and 34% average for low-income students), but Bessette and the school knew that to truly fulfill their mission they would need to continue to support students through college.

Larisa Wright, director of graduate success for DPCR, assists alumni in multiple ways. She makes campus visits to first-year students, calls students several times a semester to keep in touch, sets up individualized appointments for when students do run into problems and assists students in applying for microgrants when there is a need.

“I can say we are a trailblazer in the fact that we really put our money where our mouth is and support our students financially because, for first-gen students and low-income students, one of the No. 1 reasons that they don’t succeed in college or complete is financial insecurity,” says Wright.

Wright says that with the microgrants, DPCR has been able to help students buy bus passes, cover part of a student’s tuition when it’s not fully covered by scholarship, purchase a dining plan and even buy Microsoft Word so they could do their homework. The microgrants vary in size, but average around $1,000.

“One of the young ladies, literally her first year she was going to have to come home because her mom just couldn’t pay what I think was a $1,000 bill [for her books] and her mom couldn’t afford it. So we were able to step in and help pay that. And she has over 3.0, now she’s in her junior year and so she’s doing well,” says Wright.

Deanna Wilson, who graduated from DPCR in 2015, says that the microgrants were “crucial” for her to be able to earn her degree. She received microgrants to help cover gaps in her tuition at Mount St. Joseph University.

“At the time my mom was retired and we were going to be tight on money, so I really didn’t know how we were going to pay for school,” says Wilson. With the assistance of the microgrants, she was able to earn her bachelor’s degree in Health and Wellness and is now a certified community health worker for Health Care Access Now.

These microgrants have made a huge difference for Wilson and other alumni. While nationally only 11% of low-income students are expected to graduate from college within 6 years, 41% of Cristo Rey alumni nationally do the same.

But as more students graduate from DPCR, the need continues to grow. In 2018, when DPCR had three classes of students in college, the school gave out $25,000 in microgrants. Last year, with four classes of students in college, the school distributed $68,000.

“That’s money that’s not going into this high school. We’re writing checks to or making credit card payments directly to colleges and universities to help these kids stay in school,” says Bessette.

While DPCR has been able to provide this to students thanks to the generosity of several donors, Bessette says they would like to create a more sustainable way to assist students. DPCR is gearing up to launch its Graduate Success campaign, which looks to raise $6 million for the Graduate Success Fund. With this fund secured, DPCR will be able to assist students without having to regularly ask donors for assistance.

“We don’t mind asking and there are people that are happy to do that, but to have money that we can actually plan on, that becomes more and more scalable as the school grows and as we have more students in college,” says Bessette.

With the endowment, the school will be able to help more students complete college, particularly the ones who are only being held back become of finances.

“Our priority is to get money into the hands of kids who are persisting,” she says. “We have kids, they’ve never dropped out for a semester even though life has gotten really miserably hard for a few of them, and those are the kids that if we can keep them in and keep them on that path toward attaining a degree, we’re going to do it.”

If people are interested in donating, Bessette recommends they visit the school’s website (depaulcristorey.org) or contact the school’s vice president of advancement, Sparkle Worley, at 513-861-0600.