Amber Castaneda always knew she wanted to go to college, but she wasn’t sure she had the tools to get there.
She comes from a low-income, single-parent household where her mother did not attend high school or college. She had the drive, but did not know where to get the resources.
Then a representative from Cristo Rey College Prep High School visited her middle school, and Castaneda knew the school would be her path to higher education.
Four years later, she’s preparing for her final year as part of the first senior class of the campus.
Cristo Rey College Prep in Fort Worth is a Catholic high school works with low-income students to give them job training and work study programs, along with their high school education. The school prepares students for both college and the corporate workforce.
This school year will be the first year the private school will have 9th-12th grade classes on campus. When it started in 2018, the school had only a freshman class. It added a class each year. The Fort Worth campus is part of a network of Cristo Rey schools. The next closest Cristo Rey campus is in Dallas.
The campus community is excited about the new traditions the first senior class will start and having its first graduation ceremony, President and CEO Nathan Knuth said.
He credits that success to the community, which is what helps the school thrive.
“It’s going to be a pivotal moment also in the community, because we’ve been trying to garner support – both economic, financial support and support for American companies and trying to get the companies to work with us,” he said. “And I think this year is going to be tremendous because we’re going to say, ‘Hey, we did it. These are the seniors they graduated. Here’s a college and admittance number, and here’s where they’re going.’ ”
The corporate partnerships allow students to spend one day a week working at the office to pay for part of their tuition.
About 6% of of annual budget is from family contributions to tuition, Knuth said. The income from the corporate work study program covers 35% of the budget. The rest of the school is paid for by philanthropy and fundraising.
Tuition is based on a sliding scale determined by the family’s income.
That funding model helps break cycles of generational poverty for the students they serve, who have to fit federal poverty guidelines to apply, Knuth said.
Some of the students’ parents never went to high school, he said. So for the students to graduate and then have the opportunity to attend college can break the cycle.
“That will guarantee that their kids and their grandkids will have a better future than their parents and grandparents,” he said.
Castaneda said the opportunities she has now would not have been possible without her experience at Cristo Rey.
Her mother knew only work and providing for a family, but she wanted more for her daughter. Because of Cristo Rey, Castaneda is planning on attending college, hopefully out of state, she said.
The school worked with the families to help parents who do not know the college experience, which Castaneda said helped.
“They have family nights, and we have one-on-one meetings, to really explain to her that it’s OK if I go to an out-of-state college,” she said. “And I’m sort of introducing (the idea) to her, just because I think in Hispanic culture especially, you had to stay close to family and everything.”
Incoming junior Kevin Gonzalez, 16, said he is having similar conversations with his dad, who would rather him go to a local school than Texas A&M, which is what he currently is considering.
Gonzalez transferred from the public school system and said he is pushed harder in both his classes and by having to participate in the work study program.
He has done an internship with different finance companies to learn more about wealth management.
But another reason Gonzalez said he values the school is the sense of community. Knuth said there will be about 220 students enrolled this year, and Gonzalez said he likes the small classes.
“I can trust those people, and I’ve grown with them,” he said. “They are first-generation like I am.”
Though the school is diverse, sometimes the students are the only people of color in their workplaces.
Castaneda sometimes is the only Hispanic at a table of executives talking about her experience.
How you can help
1. Become a corporate partner and help a student pay for tuition with an internship at your company
2. Promote Cristo Rey as an opportunity at your middle school
That diversity often helps the students, Knuth said. One year, a student made a car sale at the company he was working at on his first day because he was the only person who could speak Spanish with the customer.
“It’s just a reminder that I’ve made, I’m making a space for people in the future, for these freshmen to come in and see more faces like me,” Castaneda said.
The upcoming classes of students are currently attending the orientation program with the school, the Grit Academy, to learn skills needed for their internships.
Jonathan Camacho, 14, is preparing to start his freshman year. He said he came to Cristo Rey because he wanted to be challenged academically, and he has not regretted the decision.
“I always took advanced classes, I tried my best,” he said. “And when I heard that there was a school, a high school, that was giving the students ability to actually go into adult workplaces, I thought, ‘Sure I’ll give it a try.’ ”
Ca’Mora Gratts is a new student who will be a sophomore. She also is attending the orientation to prepare for the work study program.
“They had a great opportunity for students to have a real-world experience and have real jobs, and I think that’s a really great experience and opportunity for me,” she said.
Both new students said they are nervous about their upcoming jobs, but they feel they are being prepared. Camacho said he especially feels reassured because of the older students there helping show there is a way to be successful in the program.
Cristo Rey students do not only have school, jobs and extra-curricular activities to worry about; they also have responsibilities to help at home with parents who work.
“There’s like a few instances here and there, when you have like so many responsibilities on top of homework, and then you come home and you have to do chores,” she said. “Then there’s like little tiny times here and there when it feels like such a big weight on you, because now I am the oldest in the house. So, it is kind of a big weight, but it’s not something I would say that has a general power over me to give up because I know that I have the strength and I have the willpower to keep going.”
That kind of confidence is what Knuth said Cristo Rey is working to instill in its students.
“We really try to help them and say look, ‘You’re just as worthy, you’re just as deserving of an opportunity as anybody else,’ ” Knuth said. “It doesn’t matter who your parents are, doesn’t matter what your background is, it doesn’t matter what country you came from. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, the first language in your house … This is the land of opportunity, right? And so, you have the chance to make your dreams come true. And we’re going to help you do that.”
Contact the school
Cristo Rey College Prep High School: 2633 Altamesa Blvd., Fort Worth, TX 76133
Apply for the 2022-23 school year here: https://www.cristoreyfortworth.org/apps/forms2/?f=20286
Cristo Rey College Prep High School is a Catholic school. The story has been updated to include this affiliation.
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.