High-impact Catholic school set to get to work in Tampa

Cristo Rey Catholic School
The new Cristo Rey Catholic School will be located at Tampa’s Mary Help of Christians Center.

Why would a law firm want to hire a team of fourteen-year-old high school freshmen to work in its office?

Ordinarily, perhaps it wouldn’t. But, like 38 other employers in the region, the Gilbert Garcia Group in Tampa, Fla. has signed up for some new employees to support a unique approach to Catholic education that has made a difference for low-income and working-class students in other cities.

Michelle Garcia Gilbert, the firm’s president and CEO, says she wants employees to engage in “hands-on giving,” which is why she’s signed up to sponsor the soon-to-be-open Cristo Rey Tampa High School.

The new school, set to open this fall, will be the first Florida location for a national network of Catholic schools known for pushing low-income young people toward college, with a signature work-study program that helps cover their tuition and prepare them for the professional world.

Gilbert said she recognizes the potential impact the new school will make on the Tampa Bay community, and that she’s confident students with limited means but no shortage of “ability and interest” will be able to make a contribution at the office.

The college-preparatory Catholic school will be located in an East Tampa ZIP code where one in four residents has not completed high school. This presents a challenge for the network that boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate for its graduates.

It’s a challenge the school welcomes with open arms, due to its Salesian identity. The Salesian order was founded in 1859 by Don Bosco, a Catholic priest-turned-saint whose mission was to be a friend to at-risk youths. The Salesian identity embraces “preventative” educational methods, which take a holistic approach to discipline by developing the whole person: body, heart, mind, and spirit.

The school will be located at the Mary Help of Christians Center, the site of a former Catholic boarding school that sits on 140 acres. The leafy campus includes baseball and soccer fields, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a lake and boat house filled with canoes and kayaks, a chapel, a Boys and Girls Club, and a barnyard with horses, chickens, rabbits, pigs and a turkey.

The school’s location alone will provide its students, who will hail from low-income families, experiences many could never have afforded before. But some of the most meaningful experiences will happen off-campus.

Every Cristo Rey student earns roughly half their tuition through the network’s work-study program. Organizations in the community, like the Gilbert Garcia Group, can sponsor a full-time position to be shared by four students. Each student spends one day a week, plus one Friday a month, working for the sponsor. The students help fund their education and gain hands-on experience, while the employers get a chance to nurture the professional ambitions of young people.

Gilbert said the work-study students will perform clerical tasks, like scanning and preparing mail, but her firm also hopes to capitalize on the younger generation’s technological savvy. In return, she said she hopes the students observe workplace etiquette and how to work in teams.  Most of all, she said she’s looking forward to providing these students with the opportunity to immerse themselves a professional atmosphere.

So far, thirty-nine local business, including The Bank of Tampa, the Columbia Restaurant, a radio station, and a professional sports venue, the Amelie Arena, have signed up to participate in Tampa.

The remaining portion of the students’ tuition will be mostly funded by Florida tax credit scholarships, which are administered by Step Up for Students, which hosts this blog. Every applicant must qualify for a scholarship.

This means all the students will be from low-income and working-class families, in keeping with the Salesian mission. It also gives the school a sustainable business plan.

The Cristo Rey Network is expanding into school choice-friendly states by design. It’s currently eyeing another Florida expansion, in Jacksonville. Tax credit scholarships and vouchers allow the schools to enroll students whose families could not afford the higher tuition payments that cover the cost of private education for wealthier students, and assure the schools a source of revenue beyond what their corporate supporters can provide.

Mary Help of Christians is renovating its classroom facilities for members of the school’s first freshman class, which will first arrive on campus for Cristo Rey’s summer bridge program, aimed at preparing them for the school’s college-preparatory academics, and for the workplace.

School administrators, such as Chief Operating Officer Jim Madden, say they realize how challenging their curriculum will be for the students, many of whom he expects will come into the school with previous academic struggles.

The rigors of the school’s course load could be especially difficult for students to navigate when paired with their first job, which is why Cristo Rey will be spending the time to prepare its students during the summer, when they’ll learn how to shake hands, how to prepare spreadsheets and format Word documents, and how to navigate an office environment.

When Cristo Rey Tampa opens its doors for its first 120 students this fall, it may also open the doors to college for the first time in many of their families.