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After two years of studies and planning, Cristo Rey OKC Catholic school is set to open its doors on August 10 with a unique approach to helping youth who have few opportunities.

The school gained their accreditation from the Oklahoma Board of Education Thursday as a private school.

“It is a fabulous school for underprivileged kids,” said Bill Price who is on the State Board of Education and also the Cristo Rey founding board.

Cristo Rey St Bd of Ed Bill Price
Bill Price, a member of both the state Board of Ed and Cristo Rey board, speaks on the merits of the concept. BRETTDICKERSON/OKCFreePress

“It’s a unique concept that has been successful throughout the United States.”

Since Price and Bob Ross both held board positions in the Oklahoma Board of Education and the Cristo Rey OKC school, they both recused themselves from the vote.

The state accreditation will allow them to apply for Free-and-reduced meal program money and Nicole Henry Scholarship money.

“Cristo Rey” is the Spanish term for “Christ the King.”

The concept

Their concept is to blend rigorous academic preparation with a work-study program that, in turn, pays the student’s tuition as it provides valuable supervised work experience for them.

All students work on a rotating job-sharing schedule and collectively fill 40-hour work weeks for the participating businesses. In turn, those businesses pay the school for the work done, which pays the students’ tuition.

It is a way to prepare the student for college while giving disadvantaged youth a way to pay for preparatory education and gain valuable supervised work experience in the process.

Background

In 1966 the first school in the network was Cristo Rey Jesuit High School on the lower west side of Chicago.

It was founded by Catholic Jesuit Priest John P. Foley who worked to find a way to provide a college prep level of academics to youth who were disadvantaged.

We ran a story about Foley’s visit to Oklahoma City in 2016:

John P. Foley, S.J. Cristo Rey
Fr. John P. Foley, S.J., founder of Cristo Rey schools. BRETTDICKERSON/OKCFreePress

The Cristo Rey concept is unique in that it intentionally culls out those applicants that have the means to attend a regular private school.

Foley told us that at the original Cristo Rey he would turn away those with the means to pay for other private schools. And, there were plenty to choose from in Chicago at the time.

“I would just tell them if you can afford to come here, you can’t come,” he said with a smile.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City will be the sponsor for the school, a unique arrangement in the network. The other schools are sponsored and closely operated by a Catholic order.

“I appreciate the state Board of Education unanimously approving accreditation for Cristo Rey. This will allow us to offer free and reduced lunches for students this fall,” said Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City.

Launch

Cristo Rey OKC leadership is preparing for their two and one-half weeks of summer training for students who will be in the inaugural class in August.

“Every student is required to attend. There are office skills that we will teach and train,” said Renee Porter, president, and CEO of the school.

“Moreover, are the soft skills,” she said. “That’s where we will dig in and make sure the students really understand how to navigate an office, how to shake somebody’s hand, how to have a conversation.”

Principal Cody Yocom comes to Oklahoma City from Dallas where he was the principal of Uplift Heights High School, part of a larger chain of charter schools in that metro. Before that, he was a school leader in the KIPP schools in New Orleans.

Outreach to business

Corporate Work-Study Director Regina Birchum was Cristo Rey’s first employee because they needed to secure commitments by companies before they moved to the next phases of development. The school now has a full complement of work-study placements in offices throughout the metro.

“It was a lot more work than I ever expected,” Birchum told us.

Cristo Rey St Bd of Ed school leaders
The leadership of Cristo Rey spoke to Free Press after the vote.
L-R: Corporate Work-Study Director Regina Birchum; President and CEO Renee Porter; Principal Cody Yocom. BRETTDICKERSON/OKCFreePress

“What hooks you is that you hear the story and hear the mission, so it’s like I’m in,”
she said with a laugh. “So, you maybe are temporarily blinded be all the work you just said yes, too.”

She said the response they have gotten from the community as a whole and from business leaders in the community has been strong.

“They recognized the opportunity it was going to bring – the void it was going to fill in the community,” Birchum said. “It was just overwhelming.”

She described the experience students get with the Cristo Rey model as “transformational” and worth her hard work.

“It’s the hardest job I ever had and the most rewarding job I ever had,” she said.


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