By ROGER MOONEY
A pamphlet for a new private Catholic high school arrived in the mail one day when Abi’ya Wright was in the eighth grade. Four words jumped off the pages: “Corporate Work Study Program.”
Abi’ya noticed that Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa, which would accept its first students the following August, was the only high school in the Tampa area that offered such a program.
“I was like, ‘Oh that’s a high school I can go to,’” she said.
And so, she did.
In August 2016, Abi’ya joined the students who comprised the first-ever freshman class at Cristo Rey. They took their first awkward steps as high schoolers together in a setting foreign to nearly every high school student. Cristo Rey’s first school year included only ninth graders.
Some, like Nicole Singletary, were also drawn to the school by the Corporate Work Study Program, where every student spends one day a week doing office work as entry-level employees at one of 50 Tampa Bay area business, including Step Up For Students.
Others, like Aydin Montero and Jose Calixto, were attracted by the school’s commitment to prepare each student for a college education.
“It was kind of weird at first, because we were the only class there, and nobody really knew what to expect,” Nicole said. “We were learning as we were going.”
Cristo Rey added a freshman class each year after its inaugural year, making the 2019-20 school year the first with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. It also makes the Class of 2020 its first graduating class.
So, naturally, Abi’ya, Nicole, Aydin and Jose and the other 40 seniors are part of the school’s historic milestone. The Cristo Rey seniors are proud of that unique honor.
“It feels like an accomplishment because were the first ones to test it out. Yes, it was hard work. We didn’t have all the teachers to cover all the classes, some of the elective classes. Some of us had to do online classes, but we still made it work,” Jose said. “At the end, it’s a great honor.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior prom was canceled, and the school’s first traditional graduation ceremony was rescheduled from June 6 to Aug. 8. Until that time, the school honored the graduating class with social media posts and a walk-through block party, where the students received swag bags, senior T-shirts and photos.
The pandemic made for a bumpy end to the high school experience for the seniors.
“Still lots to celebrate, though,” said school principal Matt Torano.
The path less taken
Torano said he doesn’t know if he could do what the seniors did – commit to a high school as eighth graders when, at the time, the high school was in name only.
“They chose the path less taken. They forged ahead not really knowing what it meant, not really knowing what was going to happen,” he said. “That alone is impressive to me, because I don’t know if I would have had, as a 14- or 15-year-old, the guts to do that.”
Cristo Rey is located in a lower-income section of Tampa. It is designed for students from lower-income families, many of whom will be the first in their family to either graduate from high school or attend college or both.
Every student attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, an income-based scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.
“Their parents are hardworking folks but never had the opportunities to consider college as a pathway,” Torano said. “They want better for their children, and they want their children to be the first to go to college and be the first to experience the benefits of that four-year degree.”
Nearly everyone in the senior class – 98% – are headed to a college or university.
Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that helps top academic students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.
Nicole begins her nursing studies this summer at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“It’s just something that’s been calling to me,” she said. “I enjoy the medical field and just being in the medical environment.”
Abi’ya is headed to Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., where she will study criminology in advance of a career as an FBI profiler.
“I mostly chose that one because, one, it’s not in Florida. I didn’t want to go to any school in Florida, because I want to branch out,” she said. “And two, it’s a small, private school. I want to have the same school environment as high school, because it’s easier for me to learn that way.”
Jose is taking a gap year with some online courses mixed in. If the COVID-19 travel restrictions are relaxed, he plans to travel to Mexico and visit family. After that, Jose said he will enroll at Hillsborough Community College for two years then head to St. Leo University. He’s thinking of majoring in business.
Aydin will study software engineering at Florida Institute of Technology across the state in Melbourne. He is the first one in his family to graduate high school and he will be the first to attend college.
“I feel like I’m representing myself and my family,” he said of graduating from Cristo Rey. “My mom was really focused on me getting through high school and to college. I think that’s one of the reasons she chose (Cristo Rey), because she knew I would have a better chance going on to college.”
Real life experience
With every student in every grade participating, the Corporate Work Study Program is, naturally, a huge part of the Cristo Rey experience. Participating businesses include those in health care, finance, law, engineering, food and beverage, law enforcement and education.
Abi’ya and Jose worked at Step Up. Nicole worked at a law firm. Aydin worked at three different companies, including a commercial real estate firm.
The students are paid a salary for each job experience, but the salary goes toward their tuition.
Yearly tuition for Cristo Rey is approximately $18,000. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship covers 40% of that, as does the Corporate Work Study Program. Philanthropic contributions cover 14%, leaving the families to pay 6%. Torano said that comes out to $65 per month for the parents.
“So, to get a Catholic college preparatory experience for 65 bucks a month, that’s a heck of a deal,” he said.
Spending time in a work-setting helps the students build people skills and gain confidence. They also create a network of contacts who can be relied upon to write recommendations for college and, maybe in a few years, for jobs.
“For me, it was kind of scary at first,” said Abi’ya, who initially was intimidated working among adults. “I was not a very sociable person, and it made me extremely nervous to talk to people or have the potential of talking to someone.
“I’m much, much better now.”
It may have been an unusual start, but once that first freshman class settled in, they encountered a high school experience similar to their peers around the country.
Nicole played on the basketball, volleyball and soccer teams. She joined the youth ministry, worked on the yearbook staff and helped start the audio-visual club.
Abi’ya helped start the anime club as a junior. Aydin was captain of the basketball team as a senior.
All the seniors played four square volleyball outside the school building as often as possible.
When asked for his favorite highlight of high school, Jose said, “My friends, because the school is not really big and we knew each other for four years, we started becoming a family. We were comfortable with each other.”
It’s all over now for the seniors, except for the traditional graduation. All that remains of the class of 2020 is their legacy.
“A lot of freshmen and sophomores came up to me and said, ‘You guys are amazing. Thank you for starting the path,’” Nicole said. “It’s kind of reassuring that we were doing a good job, and the school is going to be remembered for generations to come.”
That is the hope of Principal Torano.
A Tampa native, Torano looks around at the other private high schools in Tampa, including Jesuit High that dates back to 1899, and sees the contributions their alumni have made to the city of Tampa. It will take time, he admits, but he expects Cristo Rey graduates to have the same impact.
“Hopefully in 50 years they talk about Cristo Rey in kind of the same breath as these institutions that have been so instrumental in moving Tampa forward into each next step of the evolution that we have experienced as a city,” he said. “And it all started here. It started with this class. There had to be a first one and hats off to these men and women for taking a chance and making it happen.”
By GEOFF FOX
Linery Burgos’ voice cracked with emotion as she spoke about the academic progress of her oldest daughter, Ariely, a ninth-grader at the recently opened Cristo Rey Tampa High School.
For years, Ariely has struggled with dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), the last a condition that makes it hard for her to understand vocal tones or distinguish certain sounds.
“Some people think she can’t hear, but she can,” Burgos said of Ariely, who is 15. “Her brain just doesn’t always process what she’s hearing. Some sounds and words sound similar, so she can’t always catch if someone is being sarcastic or joking. It directly influences her reading fluency and that causes issues in school.”
Watching Ariely struggle through their neighborhood school tore at her mother’s heart. Imagine trying to learn how to read when some of the letters don’t look right and the words sound wrong.
“Sometimes, I’ll read words that aren’t even on the page and I’ll mix up sentences or skip sentences,” Ariely said.
Due to her challenges, Ariely often speaks in a soft voice and isn’t one to initiate conversation, but her smile can light up a room.
Burgos wanted to enroll her in a private Catholic school, where she could receive more attention in a Christian setting, but she and husband Jose Burgos couldn’t afford it.
Fortunately, as Ariely was about to enter third grade, her mother learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The family applied and Ariely was accepted. She enrolled at Tampa’s St. Joseph Catholic School for three years before transferring to Morning Star School, a private school that serves students with learning disabilities.
At Morning Star, Burgos said, the teachers worked “miracles” with Ariely.
“Step Up was great because we could get her in a school for learning disabilities,” Burgos said. “When she started sixth grade at Morning Star, she was reading on a third grade level. She is now reading on a high seventh-grade or low eighth-grade level. She still has difficulty, but she’s acquired a lot of different skills.”
Ariely said she enjoyed St. Joseph and Morning Star because of more individualized instruction, especially with reading.
“The teachers were really fun and that makes it easier to learn,” Ariely said. “They bring joy into the classroom. They were always cheerful and always caring.”
Morning Star Principal Eileen Odom said that while Ariely was struggling in a few subjects when she entered the school in sixth grade, she was obviously “very bright and spiritual.” Despite Ariely’s reading struggles, Odom said she excelled at math.
“I think she just needed an environment that was more student-centered,” Odom said. “She’s initially kind of shy and quiet. If I would get her to read something, she would talk in a real quiet voice, but if you provide her with some successful experiences she can rise to the occasion. We helped her realize she had strengths and could succeed. We spent the next three years trying to boost her up and give her confidence.”
Ariely was eventually comfortable enough at the school to run for Student Council, star in Christmas plays, assist as an altar server and help with fundraising.
When it was time for Ariely to enter high school, Burgos didn’t hesitate to choose Cristo Rey, which opened in August 2016. She said the school’s Corporate Work Study Program was particularly appealing.
Through that program, Ariely now works at Step Up’s Clearwater office several times a month. In that capacity, she has written a story about herself for Step Up’s blog, helped create a video describing her school’s relationship with Step Up, which will be shown to the nonprofit’s board of directors, as well as paperwork and other duties.
“The opportunity to go into the workforce, and a professional workforce, that’s what sold me,” Burgos said. “These children will have an opportunity that is usually for students who are leaving college. That will pump up their self-esteem and give them networking opportunities they never knew were available. It can help them have a different outlook on life.
“They’re doing it for underprivileged kids because they need it the most. Hopefully, they won’t get stuck in the rut of leaving high school and just getting some job. For a lot of their parents, maybe that’s all they knew. This may help them see that, hey, I can go to college and make something better. That will help my family and anyone who comes behind me. Giving that opportunity to children who wouldn’t otherwise have it is a blessing on its own.”
While Cristo Rey serves only low-income students, it is choosy about who is enrolled. Students must be able to maintain a C grade point average and be able to do college preparatory work.
Cristo Rey is already one of Step Up’s Success Partners, meaning it participates in a two-year comprehensive professional development program that is free to all schools serving Step Up scholars. Success Partners is grounded in current research that directly correlates student success with parent involvement regardless of economic, racial, ethnic or educational backgrounds .At Cristo Rey Principal Jim Madden said Ariely already seems comfortable. She made all A’s and one B in the first semester.
“Ariely is very quiet, but very observant,” Madden said. “She takes in everything around her. She tries hard and has already been having success in the classroom and social environment.”
Burgos said her family is thankful for the scholarship, and not just for Ariely. Her younger daughters, Linery, 13, and Jolie, 6, also have received tax-credit scholarships to attend Villa Madonna Catholic School in Tampa. Linery has been on the scholarship seven years, like Ariely, and Jolie for two.
“We are eternally grateful for these opportunities,” Burgos said. “This was a dream come true. Without Step Up, we couldn’t put our kids in Catholic school and give them the education we think they need. That’s one thing in life people can’t take from you. People can hurt you and break your heart, but no one can take away what you’ve learned.”
Reach Geoff Fox at email@example.com.