By Joyce Tsai
Jeremiah Chaidez was sitting in a car with his family at a street corner when a teenager in a gang, who decided he was getting looked at the wrong way, shot at Chaidez's father. Luckily, no one was hurt, but for Chaidez, who was only 8 years old at the time, the incident left a lasting impression.
"I felt that God saved me," he said. "And I think God was there watching over me."
Growing up in a Catholic family, Chaidez said that brush with tragedy strengthened his faith in God. Now 13, he dreams of being the first in his family to go to college. He's been doing all he can to stay out of trouble, he said, but in his neighborhood in the Oakland flatlands, not far from Cesar Chavez Park, he sees signs of gangs, drugs, and violence everywhere. It often makes him feel down, thinking about friends he's grown up with who have stopped going to school and now hang out not far from that same corner where his
father nearly died.
School has always been a refuge for Chaidez. So he was saddened when he learned last year that St. Elizabeth's High School, the sister Catholic school to the middle school he'd attended for the past three years, was closing. He and his family stayed up nights worrying about where he might end up instead.
That's why it was such a relief when he learned that another Catholic high school would be opening up this year in St. Elizabeth's place, in the same location, just a couple blocks from his home. The new school, Cristo Rey De La Salle East Bay High School, which will open this fall in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, aims to make a private Catholic school education affordable for low-income families like Chaidez's. It was a blessing to have him accepted to the school, said his mother, Monica Franco-Chaidez, "because we don't want him falling into the wrong path."
"I feel like it is a place to help us get us out of trouble," Jeremiah said about his new school. "I feel like it is going to take us to a greater path."
A member of the Cristo Rey Network, the largest network of urban high schools in the country enrolling only low-income youth, the school is one of about 35 schools nationwide, including those in San Francisco and San Jose, that use a unique business model in which students participate in a corporate work-study program to help pay for part of their tuition. The full cost of a high-quality private Catholic education in the East Bay is about $18,000 a year, its founders say. But the school's families pay tuition on a sliding scale depending on their income, anywhere between $250 and $2,500 per year (which can be paid in monthly installments), with the average being about $1,000. The rest of the tuition is covered by the students through the work-study program and by scholarships from donors.
So far, the school has enrolled about 70 students, but it hopes to add more to reach a founding class of about 90 students this year, said Michael Anderer, the school's president and CEO. In four or five years, the goal is to have closer to 130 students in each class, with about 520 students total. Once enrollment is full, the school plans to provide more than $4 million in scholarships every year.
The chief aim of the school is to level the playing field for kids from all walks of life from cities all over the East Bay, including not just Oakland but Richmond, San Leandro, Hayward, and Concord, so they can obtain a high-quality private school education, Anderer said. Only families whose income is 75 percent or less of the area's median income qualify to attend the school. In fact, the school's average family income is about 39 percent of the area's median income, or about $35,000 a year for a family of four.
"Our belief at Cristo Rey is that the pathway for young people is littered with obstacles and barriers," he said. "And we believe that neighborhood of residence, geography, ZIP code, economic status, ethnicity—none of those things ought to be an obstacle in a young person's pathway to educational and life success."
Cristo Rey's model may also be a way to increase enrollment at Catholic schools, which have been suffering from declining admissions in recent decades. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, half of the nation's Catholic schools have closed since 1960. Cristo Rey's principal, Ana Hernandez, was the admissions director at St. Elizabeth High School in 2010 and 2011, and said the Oakland school struggled to enroll enough students. "We provided a flexible tuition model, but it was not bringing in enough income to cover the rest of the expenses to keep the school running," she said. "So the Catholic education and tuition model that we know most Catholic high schools rely on is struggling."
The downward trend in Catholic school enrollment mirrors overall declines in Catholic church attendance. But for those who cannot afford a private school education and don't want to attend a large public school, Catholic schools such as Cristo Rey provide an attractive alternative.
The school's innovative corporate work-study program allows every student to work a total of five weekdays a month, so that they attend classes four days a week and work an average of one day a week. Students are hired in entry-level positions at local businesses and nonprofits such as Kaiser Permanente, Deloitte, Chevon, and Sutter Health, and the employers pay the school directly, which goes toward about half of the students' tuition.
It allows companies to fill high-turnover positions while at the same time help young people from low-income areas, Anderer said: "And it provides an opportunity for students to have exposure to a workplace and have real life experiences that they can bring to bear on their learning the classroom."
Every student goes through an interview process and applies for jobs they are interested in, he said. All students also must attend the Alpha Summer Institute, a three-week intensive job- training program during which students go on business field trips, as well as get trained on how to answer and use an office phone and use programs such as Microsoft Office and Google Spreadsheets. They also learn soft skills like handshakes, eye contact, and casual office conversation, he said.
Annie Nguyen, associate director of the school's corporate works study program, said her own experience graduating from a Cristo Rey school in Portland, during which she worked for a brokerage firm, the United Bank of Switzerland, was a huge learning curve for her but gave her confidence. "What we want to instill in our students is the confidence and the ability to advocate for themselves and ask for help when they need it," she said.
At the end of the summer program, after faculty and staff have observed students and learned what their particular interests and skills are, they match each student with a particular job with a particular company, in a big celebratory draft day event, she said.
In addition, Cristo Rey De La Salle will be the first Catholic high school in the country to implement the Summit Learning program, a personalized learning instructional model that has the backing of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. It's the second Catholic high school in the county to have a partnership with Summit Learning; Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward implemented it for about 80 of its students.
"Every student learns differently so in order to meet every single one of our student's needs, we wanted to allow for an instructional model that allows for that," said Hernandez. She explained that the Summit Learning platform uses educational software to track where students are and the progress they are making, allowing them to move at their own pace. Each student also will have an adult mentor that will meet with them on a weekly basis to talk about academic goals, draw up a plan to meet them, and help keep them on track.
In addition, the school also hopes to be a leader in bringing an equity and inclusion lens in the program for its faculty, staff, students, and its corporate partners, Anderer said.
"That's especially important because we can't remove every barrier," he said. "Students are going to experience situations in the workplace just like anyone does, and where they might get discriminated against and someone might say something off-color. And they will have to figure out how to respond to that, but in the best-case scenario, we'll be right next to them and be able to dialogue with them and create a safe space for them to integrate that experience and not let it disempower them."
Hernandez said that being a first-generation Latina immigrant from a low-income family who grew up in economically struggling parts of Oakland, she sees herself in the kids at the school. "And it's important that the faculty and staff understand the kind of trauma that some of the families and students may have experienced, whether it's grappling with limited income, health and nutrition challenges, the violence that might be impacting them based on where they live, or the stress that comes from struggling to pay the monthly rent," she said.
The school hired a director of wholeness to work with students and their families to make sure they are connected to the social services and community resources they need, so students can then focus on school, she added.
Having lived in East Oakland her whole life, Nuvia Alvarez, 13, is well aware of the tough odds for black youth like herself, growing up in disadvantaged neighborhoods. At age 9, Alvarez and a friend started a nonprofit called Going Green, which educates youth about the importance of recycling and protecting the environment. She was disheartened when her first-choice high school, Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School, did not accept her.
But being accepted into Cristo Rey was a wish come true for Alvarez. She's hopeful that her new school might help her achieve her dreams of one day becoming a writer and a publisher.
"I like the saying, 'Be the rose that grows out of the concrete,'" said Nuvia, when asked what she hopes she'll ultimately get out of the experience. "When you hear of Oakland you think of violence, but I want to be something that flourishes out of that environment—and definitely grows."
Students in the Summer session at the new Cristo Rey De La Salle East Bay High School. Photo by Pat Mazzera.