Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School gears up to offer a unique education model in 2018

Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School recently held an open house in preparation for its 2018 opening. (Photo Chris Porter / Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School / provided)

Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School recently held an open house in preparation for its 2018 opening. (Photo Chris Porter / Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School / provided)

As area public schools continue to suffer from budget cuts and the attrition of talented teachers, a new Catholic school offers low-income students an opportunity to gain work experience while paying school tuition.

Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School, part of a network of 32 Catholic schools serving over 10,000 students in 21 states, is scheduled to open in Fall 2018 on the Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City campus.

The school will operate as a four-days-a-week college preparatory classroom environment, with the remaining day reserved for students to work in one of the school’s corporate partners, with a goal of 128 incoming students for the first year.

As part of the work-study program, students can defray the cost of tuition at workplaces such as BancFirst, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF), Cox Communications, Boeing, The Chickasaw Nation and four major law firms.

Community network

Renee Porter, president of Cristo Rey OKC, said the school came about when a group of volunteers in the archdiocese reached out to Archbishop Paul Coakley about launching a feasibility study. The goal was to determine whether there would be a sufficient interest and need for such a school.

“There is a network that oversees this group of schools that have been established across the country,” Porter said. “They don’t necessarily go out and start pitching schools to cities — it’s more that a city would express interest to Cristo Rey.”

The feasibility study identified key attributes of a possible Cristo Rey community: interest from students and families, a potential building, private fundraising and corporate partners for fifth-day employment.

Porter said that all the prerequisites were met, with about 35 corporations signing on to sponsor the school and employ the students.

She characterized the environment as intensive college prep instruction with longer classroom days and lengthier school years.

“It’s going to be a lot,” she said. “We’ll push them hard, but not farther than any student is capable of learning. If they’re interested in all those things, then we’re certainly interested in having them apply.”

Beyond the benefit of being able to cover much of their tuition, Porter said the fifth-day work study program gives the students the opportunity to discover what it’s like to work in a corporate setting and possibly inspire them toward future careers.

“I’ve heard some other Cristo Rey students say, ‘I would absolutely never work in this kind or that kind of company,’” Porter said. “But it often results in them finding a career that hooks them — it might be health care, for example.”

Academic focus

Last month, Cristo Rey OKC hired Cody Yocom as its principal. Yocom comes to Cristo Rey from Uplift Heights Preparatory, a Dallas charter school. In 2016, Uplift Heights led the district in reading and math score improvement.

Prior to Uplift Heights, Yocom was co-principal at New Orleans’ KIPP Renaissance High School. During his tenure there, Yocom helped transform a once-underperforming school, raising its “good” or “excellent” test scores by 16 percent.

Under the Cristo Rey system, Yocom’s duties as principal will focus on classrooms, curriculum and effectiveness. As president, Porter will preside over the operations and development side.

“That allows him and his team of teachers and educators to focus on the academic piece, because we do know we’re going to have students coming in who are one to two grade levels behind where they should be,” Porter said. “So there’s a lot of intensity and a lot of focus that needs to be placed on those students, and this kind of structure allows this to take place.”

Porter said that the president-principal system can place the principal in an unusually good position to respond to students’ needs.

“If you can get the ‘Hey, the copier is out of paper and the toner’s low’ and those sorts of things offloaded and are able to ask, ‘What are we doing academically and what have we done for our students today?’ that is going to place Cody in an enviable position,” she said.

Future success

Cristo Rey OKC will have a full complement of students, freshman through senior classes, by the 2021-22 school year. As such, it will take a few years before the school can boast its own track record of scholastic excellence. However, since the first school was founded in Chicago in 1996, over 7,000 students have earned their undergraduate degrees or are in the process of completing their studies.

Porter said she recently visited the Cleveland school as part of her preparations for the Oklahoma City location. She said that she met one student who started out with low expectations for her education and discovered there was much more in her future.

“One of their seniors this year, who I had a chance to actually sit down and have lunch with, she was making a decision for college between Vanderbilt [University], Washington University in St. Louis, Georgetown University and Harvard,” Porter said. “And she’s going to be a freshman at Harvard this fall. She said, ‘I didn’t think these kind of options or opportunities would ever be available to me.’”

Print headline: School work; Cristo Rey Oklahoma City Catholic High School will offer a unique education model when it opens in 2018.

George Lang

This article was written by an Oklahoma Gazette contributor. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story's headline in your subject line.

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