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With sense of purpose, students cut class for a day

CAMBRIDGE -- One day every week, they gather promptly at 7:30 a.m. in the cafeteria of North Cambridge Catholic High School, dozens of boys in neatly pressed shirts and ties and girls in jackets and knee-length skirts.

They bless themselves with the sign of the cross before an administrator recites the morning prayer: "Spirit of our Living God, bless the work of our hands, our minds, and our hearts today. In doing our work, give us the courage to listen for the stirring of your presence at our jobs."

A fleet of vans and buses then whisks the students away to various companies around Boston and along Route 128, and they work an eight-hour day. Students don't get paid; their school does. The students have signed over their paychecks to the school, raising about $1.1 million, so it can remain open.

North Cambridge Catholic, responding to a call from the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to become financially independent this year, has joined a growing number of Catholic high schools nationwide that pair religious studies and work. The idea is to help the schools pay for operating expenses, keep tuition down, and expose the students to corporate America. The students, many of whom come from Boston's poorest neighborhoods, see firsthand what a college education can deliver.

Complementing classroom lessons with work experience is not new, but North Cambridge Catholic and the 10 other Catholic schools in the Cristo Rey Network stand apart from other schools because their students forfeit a full day of classes for work and give up the paycheck.

To Jacquelin Sanchez, the daughter of Colombian and Guatemalan immigrants, giving up $5,000 in pay this year is a once-in-a-lifetime investment.

Once a week, this aspiring accountant from Dorchester spends the day at Ernst & Young on the 44th floor of the John Hancock building, in a suite of offices that offers a panoramic view of the Charles River. Until this fall, Sanchez had not stepped inside Boston's landmark glass tower since a sightseeing tour in fifth grade.

"They received me with open arms," said Sanchez, 17, a senior. "They see me as another employee, not a high school student. . . .

"It makes me want to achieve that goal more than I did before," she said of her goal of becoming an accountant.

On a recent Thursday, Sanchez's job took her up a staircase with water trickling down the sides like a waterfall at Jurys Boston Hotel, in the shadow of the John Hancock tower. In a conference room, she helped Ernst & Young put on an orientation program for about 50 new employees. Sanchez spent a month preparing for the program, which gave her a glimpse of the recruits' resumes and the type of preparation she needs in college if she wants to get ahead.

By day's end, she raced the clock as she returned to the typical role of a high school student. She had a 5:15 p.m. volleyball game and just 45 minutes to navigate her way from the MBTA's Copley Square station in Boston to the Davis Square stop in Somerville. She arrived at the gymnasium just in time to suit up.

For North Cambridge Catholic's 240 students, the work-study program makes it difficult to have a traditional high school experience. Sanchez and the other students sometimes miss afterschool activities and games because of their jobs, and freshmen cut their summer short by three weeks so they can attend a boot camp to learn computer skills, a firm handshake, and how to make good eye contact and get tips on how to dress for business.

The work-study program, however, enables the school to charge one of the lowest tuitions nationwide for a Catholic high school, $2,200. Last year, tuition was $4,500. Tuition at other Catholic high schools in Greater Boston ranges from $5,000 to $9,000, according to the Archdiocese of Boston.

Nieves works at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. In between escorting patients to labs for X-rays, MRIs, and CAT scans, he peppers technicians with questions about their jobs. Nieves, who hopes to become a radiologist, has long been fascinated with bones; he broke his left arm three times and broke nearly all of his fingers playing football and basketball. He said the difficulty of balancing school and work will probably increase when basketball season starts.

"Time management is going to be key," he said. "A day of missing school can put you behind a lot in classes."

Some of last year's students decided that the workload would be too much and didn't return. School administrators did not invite back about 10 other students, questioning whether the students were up to the challenge. The decision went against the school's long-held belief that every student should have an opportunity for a Catholic education.

"It was extremely hard to do, but we have to make sure these young people can make it in the workforce," said Sister Ellen Powers, the school's president.

Duncan Chaplin, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., questions whether the Cristo Rey schools are asking students to give up too much classroom time for work. Even though North Cambridge added five days of school and 35 minutes to its day, students still spend about 15 percent less time in class than they did last year.

"To what degree do we encourage kids to work in high school?" asked Chaplin, who studies high school graduation rates. "This may be on the upper edge of what is acceptable."

But Sister Kathleen Carr, the superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, says that North Cambridge has come up with a creative plan that suits the school's demographics and alumni base.

North Cambridge Catholic hopes that its partnerships with more than 60 companies will pay off. The school's survival rests on its ability to raise up to $14 million more over the next five years to buy the 115-year-old school building from the archdiocese, build more classrooms, and improve academic programs. The school doesn't have a science lab or an extensive list of affluent alumni.

Adopting the Cristo Rey model to save a school is an unproven remedy. The Cristo Rey Network prefers opening new schools in economically challenged urban centers where youths do not have access to a Catholic education.

Of the 11 schools in the network, North Cambridge Catholic is only the second existing school to convert.

The other is Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles, which had an initial slide in enrollment after starting the program two years ago. Enrollment has since rebounded, and the Rev. Scott Santarosa, a chaplain at the school, credits the turnaround to the work-study program.

"A lot of our kids have not been out of their neighborhood," he said. "In some of the projects behind our school, they never see white people unless they are the police, and now they work with them at their downtown jobs.

"Most students think of that world as being unattainable because they look different," Santarosa said, "but now they are realizing that it is [attainable]." 

Top, Jacquelin Sanchez looked for the Jurys Hotel, where she helped Ernst & Young’s Joan Looby (middle) organize an orientation. Later, Sanchez and Maggie Boyd examined accounting forms.
Top, Jacquelin Sanchez looked for the Jurys Hotel, where she helped Ernst & Young’s Joan Looby (middle) organize an orientation. Later, Sanchez and Maggie Boyd examined accounting forms. (Globe Staff Photos/ Janet Knott)
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