Proven success: Cristo Rey Fort Worth celebrates its first graduation
FORT WORTH — With Cristo Rey Fort Worth celebrating its first class of graduates June 4, Dani Ray Barton credits one simple, yet powerful word for the college preparatory school’s overwhelming success.
“We had a group of volunteers who said ‘yes’ to bringing Cristo Rey to Fort Worth and a board that is still committed and in the grind,” said the director of the school’s corporate work/study program. “And we had families who said ‘yes’ to a different path for their children’s education.”
The trust was even greater for the 18 founding companies who agreed to hire a group of 14-year-old freshmen they had never met.
“They took a chance and that’s what makes Cristo Rey so special,” Barton said addressing students, parents, and supporters at a May 12 senior appreciation dinner in the Fort Worth Club. “Now we get to see what ‘yes’ has led to.”
The school’s first graduates boast a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Ninety-two percent of the 48-member senior class are first generation, college-bound students with offers of over $12 million in scholarships and grants.
The amount of scholarship money earned by the group is impressive, Barton pointed out, but, more importantly, Cristo Rey prepared them to become men and women of faith, purpose, and service.
“I cannot wait to see them set this world on fire,” she enthused.
Opened in 2018, Cristo Rey Fort Worth is part of a 38-school network in the U.S. that gives young men and women of limited economic means the opportunity for a Catholic college preparatory education. The innovative work/study program combines four days of on-campus academic instruction with a day spent at a corporate job site. Students earn a portion of their tuition while learning about careers in architecture, banking, engineering, health care, accounting, and energy.
Fort Worth was the first diocese to become the religious sponsor of a Cristo Rey school after Bishop Michael Olson contacted the network’s Chicago-based administrative offices about opening a campus in the diocese. Calling the inventive, affordable approach to education “an opportunity to grow in our understanding of human dignity,” the bishop felt the school would have a positive effect on impoverished youth in the area and include more people in the common good.
“It offers us hope and an opportunity to come together at a time when our city and country are challenged by voices of discord and discontent,” he told the North Texas Catholic after plans for Cristo Rey Fort Worth were shared publicly in 2016. “This effort allows us to encounter God and other human beings as brothers and sisters.”
When Cristo Rey Fort Worth welcomed its first group of 75 freshman in 2018, the diocese donated use of the now closed Our Mother of Mercy School in the Terrell Heights neighborhood for classes.
Hoping to accelerate growth, the school purchased a 4.47-acre property in April 2019 and moved the campus to 2633 Altamesa Blvd. in Fort Worth. Today enrollment numbers 225 ninth through 12th graders.
One of Cristo Rey’s graduating seniors, Kaitlyn Garcia, received a full scholarship from the QuestBridge organization to attend University of Notre Dame in the fall. The nonprofit helps high-achieving, low-income students access some of the country’s leading institutions of higher learning.
“I’ve changed and grown so much, especially through the corporate work/study program,” said Garcia, who performed data entry/analysis tasks at General Motors and plans to study chemical engineering. “I learned skills you wouldn’t know unless you’re in the field.”
The St. George parishioner said Cristo Rey provides an inviting, supportive learning environment where kids aren’t afraid to ask a question in class.
“It’s a growing school but the administrators and teachers have done a great job maintaining that small, close-knit feeling,” the straight A student continued. “If you’re willing to take on the academics and work/study program, you’ll learn things you wouldn’t at another high school and meet people who are really interested in your future.”
All Saints Catholic School alumna Amber Castaneda was recognized with the GRIT (Grace, Responsibility, Integrity, and Tenacity) Student Award at the dinner. She will study marketing at the University of Richmond on a full scholarship.
“I’m grateful for this award and can’t wait to come back to this community and give back as much as it gave to me,” she said.
Other students received full or partial scholarships from Texas Christian University, Augustana College, University of Dallas, Kansas State University, and University of North Texas. Scholarship money also is coming in from organizations like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The impressive number of award letters received by Cristo Rey’s first class of graduates demonstrates the dedication they have for their education, according to Nathan Knuth, the school’s president since March 2020.
“I think it shows our Cristo Rey students have a special kind of grit, drive, and motivation to do the extra, hard work,” he said proudly. “They want to see themselves and their families have a brighter future.”
The national Cristo Rey office is kept informed about the positive feedback local administrators receive about student performance.
“We have good things to report, and they have been excited to see the results that are coming in,” the president added.
Elizabeth Goettl, president and CEO of the national Cristo Rey network, Brian Melton, general counsel, and Mary Kearney, the network’s chief academic officer, attended Cristo Rey Fort Worth’s graduation ceremony at Will Rogers auditorium June 4. Bishop Olson delivered the invocation and Chairman Emeritus of Cristo Rey Fort Worth’s Board of Directors Charlie Morrison delivered commencement remarks.
“He’s been instrumental and a huge supporter since day one so we felt it was only appropriate he should speak at the first graduation,” Knuth said.
Sending their son Jonathan to Cristo Rey was the right decision for Pedro and Rosalva Cardenas. The work/study program helped the 17-year-old develop confidence.
“When he started going to Cristo Rey, he was a little shy. But having him work at different companies gave him new skills,” the father explained. “I’ve brought him into my air conditioning business, and he can talk to customers. It’s a real plus for my business.”
The graduate’s mother appreciates the faith-based education Cristo Rey provides.
“We wanted him to keep his faith,” she conveyed. “Regardless of jobs or education God comes first because He’s the one who helps you go forward in life.”
Jailyn Ochoa applied to Cristo Rey after hearing about the school at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. She plans to study social work at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“Cristo Rey not only helped me grow in my relationship with God, but I also got four years of work experience,” she said.
A year spent doing office work at a senior living facility influenced Ochoa’s career choice.
“I saw how they helped people and that’s what I want to do with my life — help people.”