By Michael Kinney
Renee Porter knows the importance of education. Throughout her professional career with groups such as Choice Matters and Scissortail Community Development Corporation she has fought to provide more educational options for all families.
So when Porter was named the first President of the Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic School, one of her first public statements was to let the community know that “every child – regardless of zip code or income – has the right to a high-quality education.”
For Porter, that is the foundation for her and her new school.
“That’s extremely important to me. For most people, their education is what allows them to be a functional, successful adults,” Porter said. “If a good education is out-of-reach to you, for whatever reason, you are at a huge disadvantage professionally and personally. If only certain areas of the state or people of certain economic backgrounds can get a good education, then we are creating a cycle of poverty and low attainment that is enormously harmful to us as individuals, damaging to our state economy, and morally wrong.”
That way of thinking may seem contrary to the stereotypes that have surrounded many private schools. But officials at Cristo Rey hope to change that perception when it opens its doors for the first time in the fall of 2017. According to Porter, the school will offer families with limited educational opportunities an affordable and transformative educational option.
“Every Cristo Rey school is designed to provide a world-class education to children who might otherwise not have access to one,” Porter said. “Obviously we can’t solve the world’s problems by ourselves, but for the 10,000-plus kids who go to Cristo Rey schools, they have received a lifeline to a future they otherwise would have had no idea existed.”
The Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School will be the newest member of the Cristo Rey Network, which is a group of college preparatory high schools that serve more than 10,000 low- and modest-income students across the nation. The Network started 20 years ago and now consist of 33 institutions in 21 states and Washington, D.C.
According to Cristo Rey, nationwide only 15 percent of students who come from low income families graduate from four-year colleges and universities. The numbers are just slightly better for all income levels at 23 percent.
But Cristo Rey alums are completing four-year institutions at a rate of 32 percent.
“Cristo Rey Oklahoma City will provide an excellent Catholic secondary education to a wider segment of our community for families who might never have considered such an option,” said Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City. “Its unique education model combines quality academics with the opportunity to gain valuable work experience for young men and women as they prepare for higher education and the workplace. Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School will have a tremendous impact on the spiritual and professional lives of our students.”
Because it’s also a Catholic school, Cristo Rey officials say they combine rigorous academics with real-world work experience, with the goal of preparing students for success in college and life.
But as Porter explained, the school is available to students of all religious backgrounds.
“We are open to students of all faiths, but we emphasize spiritual growth, faith-based values and personal responsibility,” Porter said. “Second, we exist to provide a great educational opportunity to low income families in under-served communities. A lot of times when these families hear ‘private school,’ the assumption is that it is financially out-of-reach. At Cristo Rey, 100 percent of our students receives financial assistance. We will work with every family to make our tuition affordable for them.”
But what makes Cristo Rey stand out from other schools, public and private, is its unique Corporate Work Study Program in which students work one day a week in professional settings to pay for their tuition.
“By having our students work one day a week at an Oklahoma City company, we are giving them exposure to the real world and job experience that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. It also makes attending Cristo Rey financially viable,” Porter said. “By working in professional settings, students are exposed to mentors, careers, and a connection to what is taught in the classroom. Students acquire the soft skills they need to succeed in the work place. They also graduate high school with an impressive resume that most young people their age don’t have.”
Cristo Rey could have set up shop in other cities and states across the nation, but they felt Oklahoma City was the right place for them.
“Over the past several years, individuals in Oklahoma City began learning more about the Cristo Rey model and inquiring about whether it could succeed here,” Porter said. “In fall of 2015, a Cristo Rey steering committee made up of people in and around Oklahoma City launched a feasibility study to measure interest and support for a Cristo Rey school. We wanted to determine: first, are there students and families interested in this kind of educational experience? Second, are businesses willing to participate in the Corporate Work Study program that makes the school financially viable?”
What the committee found was a community looking to provide their children a future that includes an education and a way to improve their lives.
“The support was overwhelming,” Porter said. “Kids were thrilled by the idea of going to a great school with opportunities to acquire work-experience and real world skills. Families were really excited about the opportunities for financial assistance.”
According to Porter, Cristo Rey has already received letters of intent from more than 30 business executives to hire students as part of the Corporate Work Study Program. They include Boeing, Mercy Health, Love’s Travel Stops and Country Stores, Bancfirst, Phillips Murrah and Cox Communications.
Cristo Rey Oklahoma Catholic High School will be located at 900 N. Portland Ave., in a leased space at OSU-Oklahoma City. According to officials, the school’s full enrollment goal is 500 students.
The school will serve 125 ninth-grade students in its first year of operation and will add an additional 125 students each subsequent year, until it serves grades ninth through 12th grades.
“I want to see hardworking kids have access to a good future – that includes both college and a career – that they otherwise could have never imagined,” Porter said on the impact Cristo Rey can have. “I want Oklahoma businesses to benefit by providing training and building relationships with their next generation of employees. And I want to strengthen our community by building bridges between the business community and the families and children who attend Cristo Rey.”
Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer. This story first appeared in The Oklahoma Gazette.