What’s in a Name?

Last Monday our school held a mass to celebrate Christ the King (the English translation of the Spanish Cristo Rey). To me, it’s always felt strange to think of Jesus as a king, and I want to consider what His reign looked like and how it informs us at Cristo Rey Boston.

Christ was a king like none other. He was a king for the poor. More importantly, he was a king among the poor. Poor, hungry, sick, imprisoned, it didn’t matter. He lived with them and broke bread with them, healed them and prayed with them. He recruited them as his disciples. He sat down with the outcasts of his time, the lepers, prostitutes, and tax collectors, and he washed their feet. Christ the King didn’t rule. He served.

food pantryOur Widening Horizons program contains a strong service component. Every sophomore, junior, and senior must complete three service activities each year. Our school offers monthly service opportunities, including chances to package meals for the sick, organize clothing for mothers and their children, and visit the elderly in nursing homes. This weekend, a group of students will be making holiday baskets.

We continue our commitment to service in our Corporate Work Study Program by placing 23 students at non-profits, such as the American Red Cross, Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, Cradles to Crayons, and United Way. We believe that the experience of serving an underprivileged population is extremely enriching for students who have spent their lives defined as underprivileged.

The point of our service component is to emphasize to our students that poor, sick, hungry, ill, and imprisoned are names that fail to account for a person’s inherent holiness. As Christ said, he is in the poor: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Although our students have been labeled poor, economically limited, or low-income, we know this is a small part of who they are, and we witness their riches every day.

In thinking about names, I’m reminded of a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” We speak loudest and most honestly in the way we carry out our lives. So as we prepare our students to become community leaders, professionals, and well-rounded individuals, we emphasize that our mission in life is always to serve. Not to take our talents and bury them, but to multiply our talents and share them with others.

In giving we find true wealth. In serving we become royalty.

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The Why of Cristo Rey Boston

In his famous 2009 Ted Talk, author Simon Sinek says people know what they do each day. Some know how they do it. Few, however, know or think about why they do what they do.

He tells companies that people buy or support the “why”. Those driven by purpose succeed, and those who are driven by profits or self-interest alone, often fail.

The “why” of the Cristo Rey movement was the experience of the Jesuits on the southwest side of Chicago in the early 1990s. Thousands of urban young people were dropping out of under-performing high schools. Mexican-American mothers came to meetings with the Jesuits and said : “Yo quiero que mi hijo sea un profesional.” I want my son or daughter to become a professional. That meant college, and the Jesuits set up a unique college prep school called Cristo Rey.

Today there are 28 Cristo Rey schools serving 9,000 students in 19 states, and the schools have 8,200 alumni, most of whom entered college after graduation. The movement grew because it had a purpose.

Fr. John Foley, S.J., the founder of the Cristo Rey movement and a close friend, said once that humility is a requirement for success in our schools whether you are a counselor, board member, teacher, school President, or facilities manager. He said the task of educating a young person who is one to two grades below level academically in 9th grade to the point where they are ready for college and work is an extraordinary undertaking. You can’t be successful unless you’re humbled by it.

At Cristo Rey Boston, every staff member, Board member and volunteer plays a small roll in helping students go from learning basic skills in 9th grade to a score of 3 or better on an Advanced Placement exam in their senior year. No one person in the Cristo Rey movement is dominant. All of us together play a small part in helping each student. When I was on the staff of the first Cristo Rey school in Chicago in the late 1990s, Fr. Foley used to say: “It’s not about us. It’s about our students.”

The “why” of Cristo Rey Boston will begin this coming Monday when 140 freshmen and transfer students come to school to begin Foundations, a two-week training program that prepares them for school and work. We’ll succeed with these young people if we allow ourselves to be humbled by the task before us and if we never lose sight of why we do our work.

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As we watch our students cross the stage next Friday at the Strand Theater, the faculty and staff will be thinking about how each has grown during their four years at our school.

Let me tell you about one young man, Ariel Soto, who lives with his Mom, four siblings, including a 14-month old sister, and the father of the 14-month old. His Dad left when he was in grade school, and he sees him on occasion. Ariel was born in Boston, but his first language was Spanish. For a few years, the family moved back to the Dominican Republic.

Ariel struggled when he first got to Cristo Rey and had many meetings with the principal and dean as he adjusted to high school.

In his sophomore year, he was placed at athenahealth in Watertown in the office services department. “I was immature when I went there,” he told me. “But, I liked the work and the people.”

Ariel was responsible for creating generic labels and tracking packages from UPS and FedEx that came to the company. He mailed items, set up rooms for meetings, assisted with Audio Visual presentations and did other work. “I learned how to help our customers and how to speak with people of high importance in the company,” he explained.

At the same time that he switched to athenahealth, he started to take school more seriously and began spending time with a group of friends who were thinking carefully about their future. “I wasn’t in the best crowd when I came here,” he said. “When I started hanging around with people in college or who wanted to go to college, everything changed.”

Ariel also has an interest in cars, and I’m the son of an auto repair/tire dealer, so we had a good talk the other day. When he turned 16, Ariel made some money, learned to drive, and bought a 1993 Honda Civic. He fixed it up, sold it, and bought another car. He did the same with that one and several others, and now he’s driving a car made in the 21st century, a 2001 VW.

Ariel explained that he really wants to learn about computer systems in cars and go into the automobile business in some capacity. He’s looking at several colleges where he can study cars and learn about management. He will make a choice soon based on the best financial aid package.

What makes us most proud is Ariel’s self-knowledge. He spoke a few weeks ago at an assembly about his growth at Cristo Rey, the mistakes he made, and what he learned. He knows who he is now, and he has an academic foundation to turn his passion into something meaningful.

I asked Ariel what his life would be like if he hadn’t attended Cristo Rey Boston High School, and he said he probably wouldn’t be going to college and might not have stayed in school.

When you support Cristo Rey Boston, you help young people like Ariel discover who they are and what they can do with their lives if they put their minds to it. A small investment can really change a life here. We see it in Ariel and all of his classmates.

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A Year in the Life: Volunteering at CRB

Admissions volunteer Rene Howard-Paez (left), with Director of Admissions Marcos Enrique (right)

Admissions volunteer Rene Howard-Paez (left), with Director of Admissions Marcos Enrique (right)

At Cristo Rey Boston High School, six volunteers work full time in various capacities throughout the school – from admissions to Corporate Work Study, and academics to student life. As the school year draws to a close, our volunteers took time to reflect on their time in the CRB community. Below is our Admissions volunteer, René Howard-Páez’s reflection:

This year of service has not been easy, but it has been rewarding in ways I probably do not yet fully understand. My main role has been working in the admissions office, but my involvement stretched far beyond that.

The most memorable aspects of this year have not been the practical lessons learned, or the professional skills I gained. Instead, every great memory involves the students. Many students we work with come from broken, single parent, financially unstable homes. Most of them forget how to love themselves or how to love others. These students are lacking life, which is why we give them our own.

In our admissions talk to 8th grade classrooms, we focus on the idea that students need to choose a high school that will allow them to re-discover the beauty of their lives. Our central focus is to show them that graduating high school, finishing college and finding a good job will not improve their lives. Instead, their lives can be improved at this moment, by realizing that they are already great the way they are.

During difficult and stressful times this year, I have asked myself, “why am I doing this?” Mundane tasks can sometimes seem unnecessary, or make me feel as though I am simply being utilized. During these moments, I remember that these small tasks are a part of something larger. I may not enjoy scanning, filing and organizing over 300 files of potential students. I also may not enjoy washing dishes, but these tasks are not about me, but about what we are giving to the students. Many things during my volunteer year may not have brought me happiness, but they have brought me joy.

Coming into the year, I knew no one in Boston, knew none of the students or their families. Fast forward to May and I feel like I have been here for a few years. There are families I have grown very close to, especially those that have children attending CRB next year; some even recently invited me over for dinner. An awesome example of the culmination of my year can be seen through my two new goddaughters, freshmen at my school, who were recently baptized, received their first communion and will soon be confirmed. Had anyone told me any of this a year ago in college, I may have thought them to be a bit crazy.

This experience has been momentous thus far, and I cannot believe it is coming to an end. This year has had such an impact on me that I am inclined to return for another one.

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Freshmen Reflection

Yesterday, one of our teachers, Annemarie Grimaldi, asked her students at the beginning of class to reflect on what they have learned about themselves this year. Annemarie wrote in her email: “Sometimes it feels like no progress is made because we see the day-to-day struggles. These responses remind me that good work is being done, and this is a worthy mission we have all committed to.”

There are just five weeks left in the school year, and Annemarie’s words really resonated around the building. Here’s what some of our 9th graders had to say about their first year at Cristo Rey Boston High School:

What I’ve learned about myself this year is that I can produce amazing work if I try.

I’ve learned never to start a sentence with a quote, or to use “I” in an essay.

I’ve learned sometimes you have to deal with people that are so different from you in order to keep going.

I’ve learned I can pass my tests and my essay proficiency on the first try.

I’ve learned that I am a hard, persistent worker.

I’ve learned that if I apply myself I can achieve anything.

I am hardworking and responsible (when I want to be). I am reliable and respectful (mostly everyday)!

I learned that I am the owner of my own education.

I learned that I am capable of completing tasks when I put in my best effort.

The most important thing I have learned this year about myself is that I am able to stay focused, get good grades, and be able to learn from my mistakes.

I’ve learned once I fall behind, it’s hard for me to catch up.

I learned not to be shy when it comes to doing new things.

I’ve learned that I talk too much, and I need to worry about myself more.

I’ve learned that I am resilient, but I can slack off.

I’ve learned that I am a person that doesn’t adjust quickly, but I am a person that grows as I go on.

I’ve learned with a little push I can get a lot of work done.

I’ve learned that I need to not have a fixed mindset and not get caught up in the distractions around me.

I’ve learned that when I try I also improve. Motivation makes me work hard and keep going.

I’ve learned how to check over my work, and figure out how to identify more complicated mistakes.

I’ve learned I am quiet most of the time.

The most important thing I learned is pain is temporary and the reward will always come some way in the end. It just takes hard work. And the more work you put in, the more success you get.


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Adult Ownership

We humans spend a lot of time talking about the world’s problems as if there is nothing we can do about them.

“Somebody should do something about struggling schools, violence, poverty and other problems,” we say. We know that “doing something” is hard work and fraught with challenges and disappointments.

When urban students fail, some educators may say: “they gave up, they stopped studying, they let family and personal issues get in the way so what could we do?” The reaction is the same as if it were a casual discussion at Starbuck’s about violence in a faraway land.

We believe otherwise at Cristo Rey Boston High School. We don’t blame “them,” our students, when something goes wrong. We look at ourselves. What could we have done differently in the classroom today? How can I do a better job of teaching tomorrow?

Taking ownership for student success requires trusting relationships. We visit student homes, know their families, and understand their struggles but still hold them to high standards because we let young people down if we do otherwise. And, believe me, they know you’re letting them down.

The great thing about a Cristo Rey school is that not only teachers make a difference by taking ownership for student success. Corporate supervisors, more than 350 of them across Greater Boston in fact, do the same when they demand high performance from our students. Supervisors, like our teachers, want our students to do well but hold them accountable for quality performance. That’s the way it should be regardless of where you are from.

Whether it’s at work or school, adults demonstrate that they care by having the courage to demand and expect excellence.

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The Playlist

All of our teachers and staff are Advisors to groups of about ten students, and this year I’m advising sophomores.

Every Monday, a group of 15-year olds comes into my office for a 30-minute activity. Over the past month and during the next few weeks, we’re guiding them through an exercise in which they are writing personal narratives. The purpose is to get them to reflect on who they are so they can think about their future.

Last week students were asked to develop a playlist of songs and explain what each one says about them as people. To illustrate, we asked students to listen to a popular song, describe what the artist was trying to express and what they feel when they hear it. Five options were available – three were artists I never heard of, one by Beethoven, and the fifth was “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U-2. Wisely, I stayed away from Beethoven and chose the popular hit from U-2, though the song was from an album that came out in 1987, a decade before they were born.

“Mr. Thielman, this is about a guy who can’t make up his mind,” one told me matter-of-factly. “What are we listening to this for?”

Ivana, who decided to sit at my desk, saw the options given, and noted the “Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi was an option. “Let me help you out, Mr. Thielman,” Ivana said. “Everybody likes this one.”

So, we switched to a hip hop song, which says that everything that shines isn’t gold, and life is about the pursuit of happiness. “It means you gotta keep going, things aren’t always easy,” one said.

When the session ended, I gave the students their assignment – select 15 songs that say something about their lives and be ready to use them in another activity next week.

The next day, one student saw me after school to explain that he didn’t agree with his classmates who see the “Pursuit of Happiness” as an expression of who they are. “My song is ‘You need me, I don’t need you,'” he said, as we listened to the song by Ed Sheeran. “You’re supposed to be your own person,” he told me. “That’s my goal, that’s what the song is saying to me.”

This week, armed with their playlists, students wrote about events in their lives that impacted them and selected songs that described how they felt at the time. The events they shared were as mundane as the first time they met a new friend and as powerful as surviving a serious illness. The kids were engaged in the discussion and listened quietly to each other’s stories.

A little hip-hop, some time to reflect and write, and before you know it high school sophomores are writing intimate personal narratives, sharing them with friends and a headmaster, tying their stories to music, and beginning to write lyrics for their own unique futures.

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