CINCINNATI -- When it came time for Iyannah Hinton to choose a high school, the College Hill teenager figured she would go to Roger Bacon High School like so many of her friends.
But her dad convinced her to check out DePaul Cristo Rey High School in Clifton, and her visit there during her eighth grade year changed everything.
“I liked the classes and how everyone was welcoming, including the students,” said Iyannah, who is now 15 and a sophomore at DePaul Cristo Rey. “Like how they were straightforward and accepting.”
There is something different about the school, and it goes beyond that feeling Iyannah experienced.
Sponsored by the Sisters of Charity, DePaul Cristo Rey is part of a 35-school network across the U.S. committed to serving urban students who need the most affordable education possible. The key is an innovative work-study model that requires students to balance classes and part-time jobs.
“In addition to being a revenue generator, the kids benefit just tremendously by being in a professional work setting,” said Sister Jeanne Bessette, the school’s president. “What the students take away from it is just so much more dignity about themselves and confidence that they are indeed this region’s young professionals.”
More local students like Iyannah will get the opportunity to do just that, thanks to a $20.2 million campus expansion underway. Once construction is finished in late 2020, the school will be able to accommodate at least 400 students with room to grow to 500 eventually if needed. DePaul Cristo Rey’s current enrollment is 325 students in grades 9 through 12.
“We’re absolutely slammed on this campus,” Bessette said, noting that DePaul Cristo Rey opened in 2011 in a building that had been an elementary school. “We have an elementary school gym, an elementary school cafeteria and tiny classrooms -- just tiny spaces for growing teenagers who really are living in adult bodies.”
The power of work
They’re getting adult-sized lessons in the importance of hard work, too. All families pay some tuition for DePaul Cristo Rey, averaging $500 to $1,500 per year, for a Catholic college-prep education. Then all of the school’s students -- even the freshmen -- earn about half their tuition costs by participating in the school’s Corporate Work Study Program. More than 100 local companies and nonprofit organizations employ the students and pay wages that help cover the students' tuition.
Iyannah works for the University of Cincinnati’s One Stop Center this year, helping college students navigate the university’s campus and answer their questions about financial aid. She worked at American Mortgage as a freshman.
The required work experience also makes DePaul Cristo Rey different from other high schools that many of her former elementary school classmates now attend, she said.
“All my friends are surprised that I work,” she said. “They’re like, ‘how?’ And, ‘Is it, like, stressful? Is it hard?’”
Iyannah said the experience has been good for her.
“I feel like it’s helping me grow as a person, and I feel like it’s going to help me on my resume,” she said.
Some DePaul Cristo Rey students have gotten summer jobs with the companies that employ them during the school year, Bessette said. Eighteen DePaul Cristo Rey students worked for their corporate employers this past summer.
“What the students were doing, somebody has to do,” she said. “The nice thing about the summer work is that the students are able to keep that money, rather than working in another fast food place or something.”
The program helps the employers that participate, too.
“Our kids are literally putting a whole lot of adults in this region in touch with what teenagers think, what this next generation finds important,” Bessette said. “We have companies that kind of use our students as their market research team.”
The student workers are a big help to Community Matters, said Mary Delaney, executive director of the Lower Price Hill nonprofit. This is the second year that Community Matters has gotten funding from a sponsor to employ the students, whose tasks include answering phones, data entry, helping with the nonprofit’s food pantry and advance planning for events.
“It’s huge for us because it provides some energy around some tasks where we always are short staffed,” Delaney said. “Before Cristo Rey, we’ve never had the consistency. So because they’re there every week, they can really be part of the team as opposed to a one-time volunteer.”
The student workers also take their jobs very seriously, she said. “They know this is part of their learning, and they value that experience,” Delaney said. “A lot of the students think about the type of work they’re doing and what they would want for their own future.”
Already seeing results
Bessette said she believes the DePaul Cristo Rey combination of work experience and a good education is a powerful path for low-income students and their families.
“Education alone is going to be the ticket to the kind of careers, the kind of job security that will turn that corner for families,” she said. “Our kids don’t want the world to see them as poor. They don’t want to be defined by the income level of their family. They want to be defined by their own gifts, their own tenacity, the grit that they show here by showing up every day, working hard.”
Bessette knows Cincinnati has more young people out there with that could be successful at DePaul Cristo Rey, and she’s looking forward to the bigger campus to accommodate them. The expansion will include a new cafeteria, a new gymnasium, two new academic buildings, a reconfigured entrance and new parking.
The school also will be able to add some extras for students that need them, including a small food pantry, an expanded social work office, a shower facility and a laundry for teens who have trouble cleaning their clothes or whose families are having problems with their utilities.
“Those are the kind of things that sometimes prevent underserved students from focusing on school,” Bessette said.
DePaul Cristo Rey has raised nearly all the money needed to pay for the expansion. Ross, Sinclaire & Associates, LLC, helped the school secure millions of dollars in New Markets Tax Credits for the project from the Cincinnati Development Fund, DV Community Investment and the US Bank Community Development Fund. With those credits in place, the school is close to reaching its capital campaign goal, said Margee Garbsch, DePaul Cristo Rey’s director of communications and marketing.
The school soon will begin work to raise an additional $4 million for its Graduate Success Program, which helps support students after they graduate to ensure they complete college.
Every single DePaul Cristo Rey graduate so far has been accepted to college. Members of the school’s first graduating class are on track to graduate from college in 2019.
“We’re already seeing the results of the college prep education we promised these kids,” Bessette said.
Iyannah, an honor student who plays volleyball and basketball for the school, said she’s excited that she will be able to enjoy the expanded DePaul Cristo Rey campus before she graduates. She already has a plan for what will come next.
“I want to go into the Army and be a medic in the Army,” she said. “Then I want to go back to college and be a surgical tech assistant.”
Bessette said she doesn’t have any doubt Iyannah and her classmates at DePaul Cristo Rey can reach the goals they set for themselves.
“These are some of the hardest-working young people I’ve ever met in my life,” she said.
More information about DePaul Cristo Rey High School and how to support its mission is available online.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.