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At Cristo Rey High School, lessons learned outside classroom

Posted by Roy Greene  November 12, 2012 01:14 PM

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(Sharline Nabulime photo)

Jaimilio Hernandez, 15, reviews his schedule before heading to work. Every student works five full days a month to help pay for their tuition. (See more pictures in this photo gallery.)

Every Thursday, 15-year-old sophomore Jaimilio Hernandez checks in at Cristo Rey Boston, a private 350-student Catholic high school about a block from the Savin Hill T stop in Dorchester.

He leaves a half an hour later.

Instead of attending classes, he spends the day working for O’Neill and Associates, a public affairs firm with offices in Boston and Washington, where he helps with public relations projects, reports, check requests, and other things around the office.

Hernandez is enrolled in Cristo Rey Boston High School’s Corporate Work Study Program, which places students in entry level positions with companies, ranging from biotechnology firms to legal services and media relations companies. Each semester from their freshmen year until they graduate, every student participates in the program five days a month.

These are paid internships, though the money goes to the school, not the students. Each company typically pays the school $29,800 for four students who share a 40-hour job, coming in on different days of the week, Emily Smalley, director of development at Cristo Rey Boston, said

More than 100 companies participate in the Corporate Work Study Program, including Boston and Emmanuel colleges, Bain Capital, and Greater Media Boston.

“I think [the students] really add value to our organization,” said Nairi Aprahamian, vice president of operations at O’Neill and Associates, which has been working with Cristo Rey Students since 2004. “I think they keep us organized, really, they do all of these little tasks that just help us stay organized and keep us going so that we can get to some of the bigger projects.”

Income generated through the program allows the school to keep the average cost students must pay for tuition at $1,150, though each student is billed on the basis of his or her families’ income. Some pay more than average, others as little as $20 a month.

Cristo Rey Boston based its work study program on a national educational model started by a group of Jesuits in the South West Side of Chicago in 1996. The group opened the first Cristo Rey High School in response to parents’ concerns about high dropout rates and gang violence, Jeff Thielman, president of Cristo Rey Boston said.

In 2004 North Cambridge Catholic High School adopted the Cristo Rey model, and, in 2010, it relocated to Savin Hill after 89 years in Cambridge and became Cristo Rey Boston High School, the school’s website says.

“By the 2000’s, 70 percent of the students were Boston residents,” Thielman said. “So it made sense for us to move the school from Cambridge to Dorchester.”

For some students, adjusting to Cristo Rey Boston’s strict dress code and work requirements can be difficult, Smalley said. The dress code requires students to wear business attire, including dress pants and a collared shirt for boys, and dress pants or skirt and collared shirt for girls. And even freshmen have to work an 8-hour day once they begin in the work program.

By sophomore year, Smalley said, many of the students understand the value of working in a professional environment.

“The most dramatic transformation I think is during that freshmen year,” said Smalley. “The whole four years is transformative, but the first year and a half are really the ones where students really begin to understand the value of why they’re going to work, the importance of doing so, and the importance of being successful at it.

“That it’s not just completing a job and ending there, but it’s really taking it to the next level of showing initiative and demonstrating professionalism, and looking around them. [They] see how much closer they get every time they go to work at being closer to being like one of those workers when they finish college.”

One student who has nearly completed this process is 18-year-old senior Ariela Reynoso, who over the past three years spent a year at McDermott Will and Emery’s law office in Boston, a year at Catholic Charities North Cambridge Children’s Center, and a year and a half at Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB), an engineering company in Watertown. Reynoso currently works in the medical procedures department at Carney Hospital, where she takes patients to the waiting room and fixes beds.

Reynoso said the range of experiences has convinced her to pursue a career in social work.

She says the range of experiences she’s had also taught her what it means to work in a professional setting and what she doesn’t want to do.

“I used to want to be a lawyer, and then when I worked at the law firm, I was like, this is not me, I can’t do it,” said Reynoso, who’s in the process of applying to Simmons College where she hopes to major in social work.

Hernandez said the experience he’s had at O’Neill and Associates hasn’t just shown him the importance of being a professional, but also given him the confidence to be one.

“In the beginning I didn’t really talk a lot, and I didn’t really have confidence in talking in front of people,” said Hernandez, who hopes to attend NYU and become a mechanical engineer after he graduates from Cristo Rey Boston in 2015. “Now it just [boosted] my confidence. Now when I see people wearing a suit I am not as intimidated as I was before, and it’s given me a chance to prove that I can do this.”

Hernandez said he would like to spend his entire four years working for O’Neill and Associates.

Aprahamian said the company would welcome that.

This article was reported and written as part of a collaboration between the Globe and Emerson College.

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