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Cristo Rey’s first graduating class took the path less taken

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.

Abi’ya Wright

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.

Nicole Singletary

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.

They are led by Jeremy Hurtado, the valedictorian who earned a QuestBridge Scholarship to Rice University in Houston, Texas.

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.

Aydin Montero

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.”

A legacy

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.

Jose Calixto

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.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

GEICO funds 1,041 scholarships for Florida’s underprivileged schoolchildren

By ASHLEY ZARLE

TAMPA, Fla.GEICO recently recommitted to supporting underprivileged K-12 schoolchildren in Florida by providing education options through Step Up For Students.

Step Up For Students administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Through GEICO’s generosity, 1,041 financially disadvantaged schoolchildren will be provided the opportunity to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public school.

GEICO has been a partner of Step Up For Students since 2010 and has contributed $33 million toward the scholarship program.

GEICO announced a $7 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Cristo Rey Tampa High School Principal Matthew J. Torano,  Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Jillian Metz, Step Up For Students Founder and Board Chair John Kirtley, Cristo Rey Tampa High School President & CEO Charles D. Imbergamo, GEICO Senior Vice President Pionne Corbin, and GEICO Associate Vice President Heather McIntyre. They are joined by Step Up scholars from Cristo Rey Tampa High School.

GEICO announced a $7 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Cristo Rey Tampa High School Principal Matthew J. Torano,  Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Jillian Metz, Step Up For Students Founder and Board Chair John Kirtley, Cristo Rey Tampa High School President & CEO Charles D. Imbergamo, GEICO Senior Vice President Pionne Corbin, and GEICO Associate Vice President Heather McIntyre. They are joined by Step Up scholars from Cristo Rey Tampa High School.

“GEICO is committed to giving back and making our communities stronger,” said Pionne Corbin, senior vice president of GEICO. “We recognize that each child is unique and as strong corporate stewards, we are confident that our investment in Step Up For Students will provide options to those who need it the most.”

“Companies like GEICO are transforming the lives of Florida’s lower-income students, and through their partnership, the program is producing measurable results,” said John Kirtley, founder, and chairman of Step Up For Students.  “Last year, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found that students who are on scholarship for at least four years are more than 40 percent more likely to attend public Florida college. GEICO is a large part of this success.”

The celebration was hosted at Cristo Rey Tampa High School where several students benefit from a Step Up scholarship, and the curriculum boasts a work-study component to give students a competitive edge.  Representatives from GEICO and Step Up For Students gathered with a panel of scholarship students to hear how the program has impacted their visions for the future.

“Through the Step Up scholarship, I have been given the opportunity to attend Cristo Rey where I have access to the tools, I need to be successful,” said Armando Diaz, junior at Cristo Rey.  “I know colleges will look at my resume and see I’ve had four years of internships and experience and I’ll stand out from my friends.  I am dreaming for the future and hope to make GEICO and other donors to Step Up very proud.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that administers the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporate tax credits and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving nearly 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Republic National Distributing Company contributes $55 million to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

donor corner TAMPA – Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), the nation’s second largest premium wine and spirits distributor, announced Monday a $55 million donation to Step Up For Students to provide scholarships for financially disadvantaged children in Florida.

Republic National Distributing Company Florida EVP Ron Barcena (second from left) presented Step Up For Students with a $55 million check at an event on Monday at Cristo Rey Tampa High School. Joining Barcena is Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill (second from right) and Step Up scholars Jeremiah Alexander, Steven Faison, Tamara Gumbs, Ziyah Hughes and Ariely Burgos.

The donation was announced Monday at Cristo Rey Tampa High School, a Catholic college-preparatory school and work study program for lower-income children in the Tampa Bay area. Of the 88 students attending Cristo Rey Tampa High School, 76 of them are recipients of the Step Up For Students scholarship.

RNDC State Executive Vice President Ron Barcena presented Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill with an oversized check representing the company’s $55 million contribution for the 2016-17 school year. The company’s donation, more than triple the amount of previous years, will fund more than 9,000 K-12 scholarships. The donation marks the fifth consecutive year that RNDC has partnered with Step Up, bringing its total to $115 million since 2012.

“As part of our commitment to social responsibility, we are focused on making positive differences that enrich the spirit and well-being of those in the communities we serve,” said Barcena. “We’re thrilled that this contribution will provide educational choices for lower-income Florida families, helping them set their children up for a successful future.”

From a truck driver to sales representative to human resources manager, a diverse group of RNDC associates attended the event with Barcena.

“We can’t do this without them,” Barcena said, adding it takes a strong effort from all parts of the business to be successful as a company, and the same is true for community engagement.

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State Sen. Darryl Rouson shakes hands with Cristo Rey freshman Ziyah Hughes while Tamara Gumbs, also a freshman, looks on.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson attended the event at Cristo Rey to thank Republic National Distributing Company for supporting the community and lower-income students.

“Having received a private school education myself, I’m proud to see so many deserving students receiving the same learning opportunity, thanks to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and to corporate donors like Republic National Distributing Company,” he said.

Rouson recalled a time as a boy he attended camp on the same grounds as Cristo Rey, and that he, too, went to Catholic school which led him to his successful career as a lawyer and a legislator.

“Saints walk among us daily and they come in the form of companies like Republic National Distributing Company and provide opportunities for children who need it,” Rouson said.

Steven Faison, an freshman at Cristo Rey Tampa High School shared his scholarship story during the event Monday with Republic National Distributing Company and Step Up For Students representatives.

Steven Faison, a freshman at Cristo Rey Tampa High School shared his scholarship story during the event Monday with Republic National Distributing Company and Step Up For Students representatives.

Steven Faison is one such student. The ninth-grader at Cristo Rey told the small crowd of guests at his school that while he went to a public magnet school, the overcrowding was troublesome for him. But private school seemed financially out of reach until he and his family learned about Cristo Rey and the scholarships through Step Up For Students.

“Education is very important to my family,” he said, “I plan to be the first in my family to attend and graduate from college.”

Step Up helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to qualified lower-income K-12 schoolchildren throughout Florida. The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to attend an out-of-district public school.

“We are truly grateful for the generosity and support of Republic National Distributing Company. The positive impact they will have on more than 9,000 children this year alone is truly remarkable,” said Tuthill. “RNDC is a great partner, and on behalf of our families, we thank them for their continued support.”

During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 95,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,886 per student. More than 1,600 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Step Up public relations and social media manager Lisa A. Davis contributed to this report.