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Kicking Off Work-Study, Cristo Rey Youth Get ‘Drafted’ by Area Businesses

September 8, 2014 Category: FundingUncategorized

Crammed into a basement auditorium, dense with late-August heat, 350 high school students waited to be drafted — NFL-draft style — by dozens of local businesses. Employees and a few CEOs circled the students, shaking hands and passing out hats, shirts and other company-branded gear.

It was “signing day” at Cristo Rey Philadelphia, a college-prep high school focused on low-income youth.

More than 60 businesses kicked off Cristo Rey’s work-study program for the new school year, an initiative that gets students working and earning tuition credit at Philadelphia-area employers. The list of participants includes corporations, such as Comcast and Independence Blue Cross, as well as nonprofits, including WHYY and the Philadelphia Zoo.

Students work one day a week in a variety of entry-level roles; four students share each position. Along with supplying jobs and mentorship, employers make a financial contribution — $30,000 per job — a sum that underwrites 60 percent of each student’s tuition.

“It didn’t take businesses long to realize that for these kids, the experience is worth more than the money,” said John McConnell, Cristo Rey Philadelphia’s founder and president.

Alexa Smith, 15, likes her work at AmerisourceBergen, a Philadelphia-based pharmaceutical distribution company. “I do a lot of office work, filing and data entry,” she explained proudly.

David Neu, the president of AmerisourceBergen, added: “She’s better at Excel than a number of people who have been there for years.”

“The kids come in wondering about this thing called Corporate America, and then they look around and say, ‘I can do that.’ It demystifies it,” he added. Neu joined Cristo Rey’s board last winter.

That demystification is also true for company employees who might otherwise have limited interactions with low-income students, according to McConnell.

“They’ve never seen how smart and funny the kids are,” McConnell said. “It opens their eyes to the opportunities for our community, if all low-income kids could get a quality education.”

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Strong network, young roots

Established two years ago in the Logan section of North Philadelphia, Cristo Rey is part of a nationwide network of 28 urban schools that originated in Chicago in 1996. It is Catholic, but more than half of the students come from public or charter elementary schools.

The school’s work-study program, described as the “backbone” of a Cristo Rey education, is based on a national model that uses the workplace an extension of the classroom. In addition to offering students real-world experience, participating companies recognize that work-study is grooming them for the future, McConnell said.

“Businesses love this idea because they are fearful of what’s happening to our local workforce. If we can’t send our kids to college, then Comcast can’t fill its skyscrapers,” he added.

Comcast was an early Cristo Rey work-study partner that currently employs 32 students. One of them is 16-year-old John Ortiz, a resident of Hunting Park. Working for the company, he said, “showed me how to stay organized.”

Ortiz spent last year working in logistics, but students are embedded across departments, and all receive guidance from company mentors. Exposing them to technology-related jobs is a direct benefit of the program, explained John Schanz, the chief network officer for Comcast Cable, who fostered the concept there.

While freshmen may start out with basic clerical duties, juniors and seniors are engaged in more sophisticated work in web development, finance and customer service.

“Students are doing real work,” Schanz said. ‘They are learning skills that are truly the foundation for a career.”

Photo courtesy of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School

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