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.”
“Sometimes I would go to school and have lunch with him,’’ Welcome recalled. “I would find him upset. He was getting in trouble for not being able to sit still after he had completed his work.’’
Welcome met with administrators and they agreed Ryan was bright, even testing him for the gifted program. When they told her he didn’t qualify, Welcome enrolled Ryan in a new local charter school. But it wasn’t run well, she said, so she returned Ryan to his old neighborhood school.
“Third grade starts with the same issues,’’ Welcome said. “Again, I ask for him to be tested for gifted and again they tell me he shows no signs.’’
It took her awhile, but the hair salon receptionist set aside the $400 it cost to have her son tested privately. This time, he qualified. His mother wanted to look at private schools for sixth grade, but Ryan begged to stay with his friends.
“Against my better judgment, I gave in,’’ she said.
Within the first month of middle school, Ryan was being harassed by other students and got into a fight. It went downhill from there, Welcome said, prompting her to transfer him to another charter school where he finished eighth grade.
“Academically, they weren’t as challenging,’’ she said, “but it was a better environment.’’
With Ryan heading to high school, Welcome wanted a different learning experience for him. A school where kids wanted to get their education. She set her sights on Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory, a 550-student Catholic high school in Hollywood devoted to academics and spiritual growth.
Tuition seemed out of reach until she discovered she could afford it with help from Step Up For Students. The nonprofit helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which provides low-income families with financial assistance toward tuition at participating private schools. Ryan received the scholarship starting in ninth grade.
“What a blessing that was,’’ Welcome said. “What an unbelievable gift. As a single mom, to be able to put my son in a positive environment … To let him learn and focus on learning seemed too good to be true. But it happened.’’
Ryan didn’t get into trouble or get bored anymore like he did at his old schools. And Chaminade-Madonna administrators were skilled at motivating him and nurturing his love for learning.
“They definitely cared more about your grades,’’ said Ryan, who graduated in May with an overall GPA of 3.51. “It was a huge change.’’
His coursework, which included Advanced Placement and honors classes, was tough, he said. But teachers like Patrick Heffernan, who taught Ryan honors English, inspired him to go above and beyond.
“We’re more of a village than a city,’’ Heffernan said. “Everybody here is more than just a name. It’s a community.’’
Heffernan credits the school’s Catholic influence and its close-knit learning environment. He grew up attending big Broward County district schools – and some kids do fine at such schools, he said. Others can get swallowed up. They need a more supportive atmosphere where they can be recognized as individuals.
It worked for Ryan. The former varsity high school basketball player earned a Bright Futures Scholarship and the President’s Silver Scholarship from Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, where he’s a college freshman today pledging for a fraternity and planning to study architecture.
“He is very bright,’’ Heffernan said. “Very gifted creatively and socially. Ryan is definitely a success.’’
Have you seen the scholarship in action, or do you have an idea for a story? Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@StepUpForStudents.org
About Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory:
At Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory, students in grades nine through 12 participate in a learning environment geared toward producing college graduates.
Founded in 1960 in the Marianist tradition, the Catholic school in Hollywood strives to develop the “whole student’’ with spiritual, emotional and educational instruction, said Patrick Heffernan, who has taught at Chaminade-Madonna for 19 years.
Academically, Catholic schools do a good job with average students, he said. But Chaminade-Madonna seeks to meet student needs across the continuum with programs that serve learners from the highest-achieving to those struggling.
The majority of graduates continue their education at a variety of colleges and universities, from Broward Community College in South Florida to Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Others go on to enlist in the military or enroll in vocational schools or service academies.
Chaminade-Madonna provides a student-teacher ratio of 10 to 1. Instruction focuses on a challenging curriculum with 18 Advanced Placement courses and another 14 through dual enrollment with the private St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.
Other programs include Chaminade Scholars, which offers demanding coursework to keep the top-performing students engaged. The Learning Center accommodates students diagnosed with learning exceptionalities by providing extra help such as preferential seating or more time for assignments and testing.
In addition, students also can participate in spiritual retreats and help mentor classmates. There are honor societies for different subjects, such as art, French and science. Athletics play a significant role in the lives of students at Chaminade-Madonna, with teams for football, soccer, dance, volleyball, golf and cross-country among others.
Of the 550 students enrolled in the 2015-16 school year, 76 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students, said Kristi Tucker, director of guidance and the Learning Center. Tuition ranges from $9,645 to $11,295. Academic achievement is measured by the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT).
Sixty-four percent of the school’s 44-member faculty have advanced degrees. Chaminade-Madonna is accredited by AdvancED (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools on Accreditation).