SAN JOSE -- The city is blessed with high schools that prepare low-income, underachieving students for college, but here comes one with a twist. Students at this school will attend classes four days a week, but on the fifth they'll put on work clothes and hoof it over to a local business, corporation or agency and put in a day's work for a day's pay. The catch is they can't keep the money.
"Basically, I liked the work requirement," said philanthropist John A. Sobrato, who recently donated $1.25 million for the new Cristo Rey San Jose High School, scheduled to open in the fall. "I worked as a young kid, and I think it's important for them to learn what it's like to work in a business or office."
When 125 freshmen reopen a shuttered school at Five Wounds Portuguese National Parish church just east of downtown, they will join some 7,400 other low-income, mostly minority and urban students at 17 Catholic high schools across the country. The schools are run by the Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network and Jesuit religious order.
The schools offer a classic, all-around education and emphasize independent and critical thinking, but what separates Cristo Rey from the low-income, college-prep pack is the mandatory requirement for off-campus jobs. Students typically perform clerical work in corporate and legal offices, but here they'll have the opportunity to work at high-tech campuses, too.
Khanh Bui Russo, a Cisco manager who wrote the feasibility plan for the school, said a big selling point for the San Jose campus was its potential for bridging the educational gap between the valley's low-income populations and the vast number of Silicon Valley companies where even entry level positions require college degrees.
"We know there's a huge technology gap between the population and the high-tech sector," he said.
The school's supporters interviewed about 400 families and potential students. "The parents interviewed described a Catholic education as the best of all possible options because it combines academic rigor, discipline and faith," Bui Russo said.
Even so, Cristo Rey schools are open to students of all faiths. Sobrato said 40 percent are not Catholic. Students typically come from families earning $35,000 a year or less a year. The school has lined up 37 San Jose employers eager to hire the kids.
Many of the students are in for culture shock. When a CBS 60 Minutes news team visited Cristo Rey's flagship school in Chicago recently, it videotaped students learning how to knot ties for the first time and how to shake hands with the confidence of professionals.
Whatever the students earn will go toward tuition, which averages about $10,000 a year at Cristo Rey schools. Sobrato said most of the families could afford to contribute up to $1,000, with the rest covered by student earnings and various grants and donations.
Sobrato's $1.25 million gift was actually a challenge grant, which he said has already been met by other donors. Another lead benefactor was Brendan J. Cassin, a venture capitalist and Cristo Rey board member. The school's board of directors has selected the Rev. Peter Pabst, a Jesuit and founder of two college prep middle schools in San Jose, as the new high school's president.
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767.
On Cristo Rey San Jose High School: www.cristoreysanjose.org