Diocesan News

The Future Is Now for Minority Students at Cristo Rey Schools

Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School opened in September 2008. (Photo: Courtesy of Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — After four years of simultaneous corporate work and rigorous college-preparatory education, Remsfield Papillon graduated Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School in East Flatbush with not only a diploma in hand and four years of college in sight, but an invaluable foot in the door with his dream company.

Papillon, now a junior at Fairfield University, maintains a role with the scientific software company Schrödinger on a four-day-a-week schedule.

It’s an opportunity he’s unsure he’d have if not for the unique Cristo Rey educational model that introduces students to the corporate landscape from the day they enroll as young teenagers.

“Without the experience, I wouldn’t know where to look. I wouldn’t know what door to knock on. I wouldn’t know who to send the email to. I wouldn’t know how to set a resume or cover letter. I wouldn’t know how to communicate and how to maintain office etiquette,” Papillon said. “Whereas leaving Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School I left with a resume and I left prepared for the workforce at 18.”

The network of 38 Cristo Rey schools in the U.S. operates through a Corporate Work Study Program, where students from families of limited economic means work to pay for their tuition. It’s an alternative to traditional scholarships and financial aid that school officials believe gives students a head start on a potential career path.

There are two Cristo Rey high schools in New York City: Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School and Cristo Rey New York High School. Every student at both schools participates in the Corporate Work Study Program, and all of the students are minorities.

At Cristo Rey Brooklyn, founded in 2008, there are 285 students, about 85% of which are African American, and 15% are Latino, according to Joseph Acciarito, the school’s director of business development. At Cristo Rey New York, founded in 2004, there are 379 students, about 75% of which are Latino, 20% are African American, and 5% are multiracial, according to the school’s president Dan Dougherty. 

“The confidence and maturity, professional skills that are developed, the exposure to fields that one may never have considered before working in a corporate job all create lasting benefits for the students that are unmatched by a traditional high school experience,” Dougherty said of the educational model.

William P. Ford III, the president of Cristo Rey Brooklyn, added that students at Cristo Rey schools gain a sense of maturity, personal responsibility, and ownership in being the main provider of their education costs. He also noted the unique opportunity the students get as teenagers working in a professional office setting, and the value of learning about the process to a successful career from those who have done it.

“Those are the kinds of realizations and the soft skills and grit and persistence and troubleshooting and advocating for oneself that we think, combined with our strong program of formation and college-preparatory academics, is really the secret sauce in our students’ persistence in graduation from college at rates that are exceeding their demographic nationwide,” Ford said.

An estimated 55% of Cristo Rey Brooklyn graduates finish college within six years, compared to only 23% of low-income high school graduates nationwide who complete college within six years, according to Acciarito. Cristo Rey reports that its students have a college graduation rate of over 80%.

Another unique part of the Corporate Work Study Program is the number of different fields of the companies involved. One partner of Cristo Rey Brooklyn is DeSales Media and Catholic Charities in the Brooklyn diocese. Other partners, of both New York schools, include American Express, Deloitte, J.P. Morgan Chase, National Grid, and Con Edison.

The schools tailor the firms the students work for to their interests, to help them get the most out of the opportunity. Papillon, for example, said he arrived at Cristo Rey with a strong interest in computer science. That interest led him to Schrödinger, where he is currently developing a design system to use with the company’s main software.

“It allowed me to first and foremost see what it was like to work in the field, and secondly, it strengthened my previous desire to work in that field,” Papillon said. “Then for college, I feel like having an idea of where I wanted to be allowed me to better focus on the skills that I really wanted to learn.”

The Corporate Work Study Program has also evolved. Ford noted that positions where people are “pushing paper” have diminished, and now the corporate world is more related to comfort and familiarity with technology, coding, data entry, social media and they’re trying to “weave that into the preparation” for students.

The latest evolution for the program is the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of remote work becoming commonplace. Ford said this is a reality that they’ve embraced, and they equip students with the skills they need in that environment.

Adriane Castillo, director of the Corporate Work Study Program for Cristo Rey New York, said they too have accepted that remote work will continue and it’s a part of the program she anticipates will continue to grow.

“There will always be significant changes, and I think the emphasis for us will always be how can we ensure students continually learn that, as well as foundational communication [and] problem solving, and keep developing those skills,” Castillo said.