New Tampa school offers students a real-world education

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As students across the Bay Area get ready to head back to school, Christo Rey Tampa High School students are preparing for an education unlike any other in the state.

The first group of ninth grade students will begin class next Monday.  Their schedules will include college-prep level classes, but some of the biggest lessons they learn over the next four years will occur outside their classroom walls.

In additions to biology and world history, Cristo Rey students will get a real-world education in white collar offices. Students will work part-time for one of 25 professional businesses around Tampa.

They'll gain professional skills at big-name companies in the area including Amalie Arena, Coca Cola and The Florida Aquarium. It's anything but the typical high school job.

"I don't think a lot of young people know what's out there," said Tampa attorney Joshua Keleske, who is hiring two Cristo Rey students this school year to perform administrative duties in his law office. "If we can expose something to them perhaps they'll have a bigger dream as they continue on in their lives."

A bigger dream thanks to opportunities most of their parents couldn't even dream of.

Cristo Rey's students come from low income families, many are single parent households where few moms or dads have finished high school, let alone gone to college.

"The goal is to break the chains of poverty. You're teaching the child but you hope it goes back to their parents and their siblings," said corporate work study program director Maria Vaca. "You hope they're teaching their families and it's changing the culture. Work study is teaching them about a world that they've never been exposed to."

"We're saying you're a human being and you have dignity no matter where you come from," said Cristo Rey religion teacher Audrey Merck. "We're giving them the same shot as everyone else and in my opinion they're getting an even better shot."

This isn't an internship program. The students' work in the office helps to pay for their tuition.

Tuition is covered by a combination of work-study earnings, Step Up For Students Scholarships and donations from individuals and foundations.

The combination drops the cost of a catholic school education for qualified students to just $50 a month.

The ability to contribute and save their parents' money is a big source of pride for students used to growing up with a lot less than their wealthier peers.

"The difference is their parents pay for everything. It's nice to know I'm contributing to my school," said Grace Arlington, Cristo Rey Tampa class of 2020. 

Though this is the first Cristo Rey school in Florida, the network of schools operates in 21 different states. 

Their students' success rates are astounding. Cristo Rey schools have a 100-percent graduation rate and 90-percent of their students go on to college.