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Cristo Rey Partnership Highlighted in Columbus Dispatch

Cristo Rey: A decade at the Catholic high school where everyone gets into college

Cole Behrens

Columbus Dispatch

The principal of Cristo Rey Columbus High School in Downtown likes to think of the Topiary Park and Columbus Metropolitan Library main branch as part of the school's "extended campus."

On a given weekday, you'll see students from the Catholic school on Town Street spending their lunch time at Topiary Park, studying after school at the Columbus Metropolitan Library main branch — or even using the long paved loop around the park as a practice course for the school's track team.

"We keep the (library) café open," said Ryan Michelle Pettit, the school's principal.

Cristo Rey High School, opened in 2013 with a mission of educating students from low-income backgrounds, is now celebrating the conclusion of its tenth school year in a May filled with celebrations for the seniors — all of whom were accepted into a college.

Catholic school focuses on offering affordable education to all

Cristo Rey High School in Columbus is part of a nonprofit network of 39 schools across the country that was founded in 1996 to prepare youth from low-income families for post-secondary educational opportunities.

While the school is "unapologetically Catholic," only around 30% of the student body is actually Catholic, Michelle Pettit said. The diversity of the school is celebrated with a collection of flags from the dozens of countries that the students come from, ranging the globe from Central America to Africa and Asia.

Each Friday, the school provides quiet, interfaith prayer time, but it also has Catholic Masses and blessings, sometimes using the Saint Joseph Cathedral on Broad Street.

"Even our students that aren't Catholic, I've heard them say how much they appreciate that time to have the quiet, prayerful center," Michelle Pettit said of the Friday prayer time.

Part of the wide diversity of student backgrounds, Michelle Pettit said, was the school's commitment to educating low-income and underserved communities. Cristo Rey charges families based on their income, with families typically paying $250 to $3,000 per school year. Around 420 students attend the high school, but there is capacity for maybe 450.

"We are really serving students that, otherwise, going to a private Catholic school might not be an option," Michelle Pettit said.

When the school acquired the former Ohio School for the Deaf property for around $1 million in 2013, Michelle Pettit said the library was more interested in good neighbors than in profit from the sale.

"They told us, 'Don't build a library in the school, we'll be your library," Michelle Pettit said. "We have the best library."

As a Cristo Rey network school, it isn't a Catholic Diocese of Columbus, but Columbus Bishop Earl Fernandes is the religious sponsor of Cristo Rey Columbus High School and sits on the school's board. Michelle Pettit said the school is grateful for the support of the diocese and that "the relationship is super strong."

"Cristo Rey is an integral part of our Diocese’s efforts to evangelize, Catholics and non-Catholics alike," Fernandes said. "It helps build partnerships with businesses and with the larger community and gives young men and women real experience, confidence and formation in values that last a lifetime."

Preparing students for the real world 'to and through college'

One of the things that makes Cristo Rey special, Michelle Pettit said, is the "to and through college" mission of the school. That means the school helps every single student get accepted into a college.

In the main hallway at the entrance, the class of 2024's progress toward the goal is measured — and the thermometer representing the acceptance rate is at 100%. On the second floor, too, the wall across the landing at the top of the stairs is lined with pennants from dozens of universities from across Ohio and the nation that students have been accepted to this year.

"The biggest impact we can have is the four years they're with us, so we do everything we can to prepare them academically," Michelle Pettit said. "So we can make sure they still have support."

Some students arrive years behind grade level, and the school has extra supports in place to help catch them up. Michelle Pettit said the school also helps students with federal financial aid applications, and even has an alumni advisor who stays in contact with students to help support them after they graduate.

In addition to assistance with college applications and preparedness, Cristo Rey also works with dozens of private businesses and public organizations throughout Columbus to provide each student with work experience. Students work for Nationwide Insurance, the city of Columbus or JobsOhio among dozens of other business partners, which Michelle Pettit said helps prepare the students for a life beyond school.

"They're learning those soft skills you learn by doing, and they're doing real work," Michelle Pettit. "It helps define their education but it also teaches them these skills I didn't learn until I got out of college."

Aicha-Simone Clark, 18, is a senior preparing to graduate next month and then attend Wittenberg University in Springfield to study engineering. After a couple of years there, she said she hopes to attend the University of Pennsylvania or Case Western University. She said she was grateful for Cristo Rey because the school drove her to achieve more and grow as a person.

"People all around me, surrounding me with support, helped a lot to get through these four years of high school," said Clark, of Whitehall.

Like other Cristo Rey students, Clark works a job through the school for professional experience with the Ohio Dominican Sisters of Peace, a religious order and advocacy group in Columbus. She also runs on the school's track team and has another job outside of school.

Clark said she hopes she can remain connected to the school even after she leaves for college.

"The people you meet here, the new friendships, relations — they're all valuable and very important," she said.

cbehrens@dispatch.com

@Colebehr_report

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