That’s the per capita income of our 9th graders this year. It’s the lowest in the Cristo Rey Network, an organization that exclusively serves low-income students. The average income of our freshman families is $23,824, and most of the households include at least four people. $6,039 per person in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.

About two thirds of our students come from single families, so their mothers work at least one job, sometimes two, making under $12 per hour. Some get child support payments, but the checks often arrive late or not at all.

All of us who work and live in or near the great city of Boston complain about the high cost of living. High mortgage and rent payments, consumer debt, student loans, and the struggle to save money for our children’s college education can be overwhelming. But stretching $23,824 to feed, clothe and house a family of four is a challenge most of us could not meet. After a mom with a net pay of $375 a week pays the rent, utilities and transportation bills, how much is left when she gets to the grocery store?

That’s where our students come from, and they keep coming to Cristo Rey Boston because here they are loved, cared for, and supported. Their dreams, and their mothers’ dreams for them, are nurtured and realized. Like their mothers, they work hard, and they want something better for themselves and their families.

It is humbling to be in the presence of our families. They do more with less, and face adversity that most of us will never know.

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Reason and Freedom

I’ve learned that you don’t explicitly “teach” faith to high school students. Yes, all of our students take Theology classes including Sacred Scriptures, Ethic, and World Religions. They attend masses, go on retreats, and participate in service projects. Faith is more than acquiring intellectual knowledge or simply taking action, however. Faith must be made personal.

The late Italian theologian, Fr. Luigi Giussani (1922 – 2005), who began his career as a high school teacher, taught his students a method to personalize faith, a method that would allow everyone to see the reasonableness of faith. As a young priest, he told his students that his job was to “teach you a true method that you can use to judge the things I will tell you. And, what I have to tell you is the result of a long experience, of a past that is two thousand years old.” The method that we use to help students “judge the things we tell them” requires a true education in the use of reason and freedom.

An education in reason means we teach students to be open to “reality in all its totality” and not to reduce our interest to what is just entertaining, pleasing, or just familiar but to be truly curious and open, traits every faculty and staff member has to possess as well.

An education in freedom is about responsibility, which comes from the word “respond.” We teach our students to respond to the world by paying attention to everything they see, hear, feel and touch. We want them to dismiss any preconceptions they might bring to school, and through our teaching we give them the capacity to be wide open to all possibilities without precluding any.

Reason and freedom. These concepts underlie every aspect of our school from our curriculum to the way we teach to extracurricular and campus ministry activities. How has this approach worked out for us? Well, this year 40 students voluntarily signed up for a Teen Christian Initiation Program at a local parish (St. Thomas/Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Jamaica Plain/Roxbury), in the summer of 2013 ten students spent two weeks in Kenya living and working with missionaries from the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo, and dozens of students have become more involved in their local churches.

These kids, who are growing up in the Internet Age, have personalized their faith. They are making their own way to God, and we, their teachers, are graced by the wisdom of a 1950s Italian high school teacher who has given us a method to help a group of 21st century Boston teenagers connect the world they are experiencing to the deepest desires of their hearts.

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College Counseling Saturdays

This past Saturday morning our parking lot had more cars in it than usual because many of our teachers and staff had volunteered to help our seniors complete college applications. It takes a village to help students in their final year at our school prepare for their next steps in life.

The emotion of deciding what to do after high school, the angst about which colleges to apply to, and the need to meet application deadlines is no different than any other high school. At Cristo Rey, however, we’re helping students apply to college who are the first in their families to go through this process. Despite living in America’s college town, our families have little experience with post-secondary education. Our team, under the direction of our dedicated college counselor, Michael Mansfield, makes sure that every one of our seniors applies to multiple colleges. Michael helps students identify the right colleges, gives them a reality check on which ones are appropriate to their GPAs and SAT scores, and manages a process in which we review every application before it is submitted.

This year, Michael is the sole college counselor for 64 seniors who, we expect, will be first generation college students next fall. We plan to add an additional counselor next year to accommodate our school’s growth. Michael is supported by Beth Degnan, our Principal for Student Life (we moved her from Director of Counseling to this position this year). Beth and Michael are particularly skilled at pushing a small minority of skeptical and sometimes reluctant seniors through the intricacies of the application process.

Michael is helped by Aki Peterson, who works at our school one day each week helping students apply for financial aid. Aki’s salary is paid for by uAspire, an organization that places counselors at several schools in Boston that serve low-income students. He’s also helped by our Board member, Cathy Brennan, and her daughter, Kara, who have launched the College Perspectives Mentor Program. Cathy, who had her own college counseling consulting business for many years, has rounded up some volunteers who review essays and applications, prepare students for interviews, and sometimes drive students to see college campuses.

The goal is to get every senior to apply to a number of colleges by January 1st, place them in college by May, and ensure that they are enrolled and taking classes in a four-year institution in the fall of 2014. Our college placement and persistence rate (i.e., remaining in college) is in the top five of all Cristo Rey Network schools – arguably the best association of college prep schools for low-income urban students in the nation.

During these cold months in New England, many people devote countless hours to help a somewhat nervous group of seniors at a small school in Dorchester apply and eventually choose the right college. The process isn’t easy, sometimes it’s emotional, but ultimately our seniors are rewarded with a clear path to a better life.

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Mayor Walsh

Marty Walsh Visit to NCC 2009In 2009 as we were negotiating our move from Cambridge to Boston, we connected with a little-known State Representative named Marty Walsh. Some in Dorchester’s Savin Hill neighborhood – Representative Walsh’s political base – were opposed to our move because Cristo Rey only serves low-income students and intentionally excludes families of higher economic means, including many who lived close to the building we wanted to occupy.

Marty came to our school in Cambridge, met with Fr. Jose Medina, our Principal, and me, and spoke with our students. At the end of the visit, we talked about the challenges of moving to Savin Hill. Marty told us not to worry. There would be other opportunities for his neighbors; what Cristo Rey could bring to his community and to all of Boston would help young people.

Marty’s support of our school was critical to our move. He was willing to stand up, gently and respectfully, to his neighbors and friends. He convinced the neighborhood that Cristo Rey Boston would be good for the community, and today those very people who spoke against our move to Dorchester are our biggest supporters.

1105_mayoral-final06Since our move, Marty, who lives right across the street from my office, has become a close friend of Cristo Rey Boston. He roots for our students, he’s spoken here many times, and when he talked with a class of juniors on the morning of his election as the 54th Mayor of our city, he told them never to let their dreams die. He also said: “I love this school.” And, he meant it.

Marty is now the Mayor of all of Boston and no longer just an advocate for those of us fortunate to work or live in Savin Hill. I can assure you, though, that Mayor Walsh will continue to stand up for young people, urge them to follow their dreams just as he did, and put the interest of kids first every time he has to make a difficult decision.

1105_mayoral-final012Congratulations, Mayor Walsh! Your friends and neighbors at Cristo Rey Boston High School are proud of all that you have accomplished.

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We hold a number of parents’ nights throughout the year. These are opportunities for parents, grandparents and guardians to meet with teachers and to get a better sense of how their children are doing in school. There was a lot of good energy in the building though not every conversation was a happy one, especially for those whose sons or daughters are not working to their full potential.

Marcos Enrique, our very talented and committed Admissions Director, had an encounter at last night’s parent’s night that sums up what our students and what our school is all about. Here’s what he wrote in an email to all of us at 9:58 p.m. last night:

In the middle of parent night tonight, I stepped outside to the back parking lot and since I didn’t have my keys, I opened the door all the way. Alex Nival saw me outside and came out to talk to me and noticed that there were huge trash bags piled up. He said he couldn’t stand to see that much trash together in our parking lots as parents walked by – it didn’t give a good impression. He grabbed Jay Hernandez, Juan Mendez and Emmanuel Beato and quietly brough all that trash to the dumpster. When I realized they had done that, I told them that was impressive. I don’t know what was more impressive, what they had done or Alex’s response when I told them I should give them a shout out. He said: “We don’t need to be given the glory of a shout out. We should give the glory to God.”

Just a nice experience in the middle of madness.

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Work – Study – Sports

The other day, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) held a hearing to decide if a former student of ours could play a sport for his new high school. MIAA rules prohibit students who transfer high school from playing or practicing with a varsity team if they played that same sport at another school the previous year. A waiver can be granted if the students’ family moves or if the MIAA deems it in the student’s best interest to continue playing.

The hearing room was crowded with the student, the principal of the receiving high school, an all-male panel representing the MIAA that heard the appeal, coaches, a lawyer, and family members. Our school, which was asked to speak about the matter, was represented by two women, our Athletic Director, and our Dean of Students. Other than the young man’s grandmother, they were the only women in the room.

I’m not questioning the MIAA’s right to make a decision about whether a young man can play a sport. In our opinion, the best thing for him, and the course we were planning to take this year, was that he not play sports and instead get his grades up. This is no longer our decision, however.

During the hearing, a retired principal who sat on the panel was dumbfounded by the Cristo Rey work-study program. “You mean students miss practices and games on they days they work,” he blurted. “What kind of program is that?”

“That’s correct, sir,” our young Athletic Director responded. “On work days, the students work the whole day. We’re preparing them for college and life.”

When I heard this, I could not have been more proud of our young Athletic Director, who stood up for our students and our mission in a room full of men.

Cristo Rey breaks every category that people have about education. Yes, our students miss games and practices if they are scheduled during a 9-5 day, though most sports practice after 5:00 p.m., when the work day and a homework period are done.

Our mission is very clear, and it works. For the past four years, 100% of Cristo Rey Boston’s seniors have been accepted to four-year colleges, and students who enter our school 2-4 grades below level end up going to some great colleges and universities because they work and study hard during their four years at Cristo Rey.

What kind of a program do we have, sir? I’d say we have one that delivers results for students who want to work hard for a better future.

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What’s at Stake

On the eve of the first day of academic classes, one of our teachers, Mike Kauffmann, sent around a brief essay written by a freshman. Our Foundations class, a two-week summer orientation program for new students, begins in mid-August with an exercise in which each young person answers three questions: who are you, why are you here, and who do you want to be?

In the essay, the 9th grader said her parents had passed away, she was living with her grandmother, multiple cousins, and siblings, including one who attends our school, and she was the first female in her family to go to high school. She did not want to become a statistic, a victim of drugs, violence or teen pregnancy, she said. Instead, she wrote: “I want to be the change. I want to be confident and strong.”

That’s what the entire Cristo Rey movement with 8,000 students attending 26 schools in 17 states is all about. It’s about change – confident and strong, a belief that we can educate urban young people for college, form them to be young people of faith, purpose and service, and create a better world.

Our mission is a pretty serious one. We take young people who enter high school anywhere from 1 to four years below 9th grade level, push them as hard as we can, and prepare them for college. The road is never easy. Many of our students (and sometimes our staff) want to give up. But, our name is Cristo Rey – Christ the King – the one who preached to the poorest in His time that the world could be better and more just. Our faith tells us that we can always overcome.

We begin year 10 of the Cristo Rey mission in Boston with 368 students, 125 corporate partners, and hundreds of believers who follow our work and support our young people. Cristo Rey keeps going in Boston and beyond because our students, like the young woman in Mike’s Foundations class, want to be the change, confident and strong. We cannot let her or her classmates down.

Thank you for being part of Cristo Rey Boston, and stay tuned for an incredibly exciting year.

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