At Cristo Rey, Extra Attention Keeps Students On Path To College

Jun 20, 2014

For the past four years, every single graduate at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in East Baltimore was accepted into college. The college prep school's officials say they work hard to keep their mainly low-income students on track.

Keeping their students focused on success means giving extra attention and support. School officials say they keep their students on the road to college by reminding them that there are consequences when they don't follow school rules.

On a morning earlier this week, tenth-grader Wayne Massey was sent to the dean's office for talking during a final exam.

Wearing the required tie, white shirt and khakis, Massey sat at a table in Dean of Students Derrick Lifsey's office looking dejected. But instead of focusing on what he'd done wrong, Lifsey took a more positive approach.

"He's a great young man and has a lot of potential," Lifsey said to others in his office.

When Massey said he was just having a bad day, Lifsey quickly corrected him and said, "A bad day or a bad moment...because you still have the rest of the day... and you're going to make that a good day correct?"

Massey agreed with Lifsey, who believes his approach keeps students motivated when he tries to turn negative situations into something positive.

Like most of the 320 students, Massey is on a scholarship at the private school. He pointed to a book on Lifsey's desk that he read for class about a student who lived in a rough neighborhood, but succeeded anyway. He says it reminded him a bit of himself and what he endures daily on his way to Cristo Rey.

"When I walk to the bus stop, they see me with my tie on and they make fun of me," Massey said. "Most of the time I just ignore it but other times, I say something back."

Dean of students, Derrick Lifsey, (seated) talks with student, sophomore Wayne Massey about the importance of not talking in class during final exams. He described Massey as a good student with lots of potential.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WYPR

According to Lifsey, Massey is not alone in getting teased for wearing the school's uniform in his neighborhood. He says some who live in high-crime areas don't wear their uniforms on the way to school.

"One of the biggest struggles is just getting here. We've lost a few students who felt teased or picked at," he said.

Lifsey said they also lose students who have trouble keeping up with the school's rigorous college preparatory curriculum. Students also work once a week in a corporate internship each year. Tony Hawk, who graduated this year, at one time felt that it was too much. He's a dancer with an internship this summer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and will attend Wesllyn College next year. This year he taught dance classes and also held two jobs to help his single mother with bills. Not surprisingly, his grades suffered.

"At the beginning of the school, my GPA was 1.8 and by graduation, it came up to 3.1," Hawk said. "I managed to manage my time better and quit one of my jobs so I could pass."

Hawk's advisers helped him make those changes. His classmate Reggie Baylor said the school supports them, especially when they feel overworked and want to give up.

"At Cristo Rey, we have teachers that care about us and our work. They stay on you and if you fall back, we have academic support,"  Baylor said.

Guadalupe Sosa, a Cristo Rey honor student and Maryland's Horatio Alger scholarship winner, said her teachers helped her when she felt like giving up this year as the stresses of senior year got to her. In addition to school demands, she is a translators for her parents, who are natives of Mexico.

"I was so overwhelmed with classes, work and college applications that I felt like giving up last month because it was really hard," said Sosa, who will attend Goucher College in the fall. "I didn't want to study but our teachers told us we were so close to graduation and that we could do it, so I said, 'OK, I can do this,'"

According to the school's college counselor Gina King, Cristo Rey usually has about 120 ninth graders. But that number drops to about 70 students in the senior class.

"We all struggle with retention, and for our students it's no different and sometimes worse because they're dealing with so many other issues than just catching the bus," King said. "It's catching three buses and a shuttle, it's making sure your brothers and sisters are at school before you are, it's getting home to take care of grand mom because mom is working two shifts."

But even so, King says they do not lower academic expectations for Cristo Rey students. Instead, the students get them extra personal support to keep them in school.

"Many times we're parents to our students and we fill in for the parent who can't and we try to be a home and support structure and a ladder for students,” she said.

King said most Cristo Rey students qualify for free and reduced meals and are striving to be college firsts in their families. For those who need additional help, Lifsey said they have many programs and resources.

"The biggest thing is we have a mentorship program at Cristo Rey. When you're struggling, we have afterschool programs that can help you in any field of study you're struggling in," Lifsey said. "We may pick up the tab for the bus for students to get here, buy uniforms, so we try to constantly tweak and help kids on the borderline of not being successful."

Gina King, college career counselor at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, says they give their students a lot of academic and personal support to keep them on track for college.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WYPR

And Lifsey said the school has separate lifestyle classes for male and female students that they all take to help them with their challenges.

"We talk about everything -- sex, drugs and rock and roll. What are you dealing with," Lifsey said. "We get a feel of that and take our experiences and show them how to take those struggles and turn them around."

And the school has many success stories, evident at this year's June 14 graduation at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Enoch Pratt Free Library CEO Carla Hayden, the keynote speaker, congratulated them on their 100 percent college acceptance rate.

"For many of you it was not easy but you did it. You earned it. Give yourselves a hand," Hayden said to thunderous applause.

During the graduation ceremony, valedictorian Diamani Clifton, put it this way.

"This was a hard school and we had our own personal struggles along with that hard work. All of us at Cristo Rey have a story, some good and some not so good," Clifton said. "Those stories connect us to each other. We are all a part of each other's journey, so, to the class of 2014, all I can say is this: We made it!"

Outside, after the ceremony was over, Sheilah Mabry took pictures with her granddaughter, graduate MaKayla Munz. She said the scholarship Munz received was a Godsend.

"It really did me good because I was the only one in the house working," she said. "They really helped her and they stood by MaKayla."

Hugging her son, graduate Letroyd Lambert, Rachelle Melvin said because of his scholarship, she only paid $90 a month in tuition. In addition she the school did a good job preparing him for college.

"That is what I love about this school," Melvin said. "Next year, he's going to [the Community College of Baltimore County] Essex first and then will transfer to a four-year college."

Back at Cristo Rey, alumni coordinator Maya Shipley proudly named schools where this year's graduates will be studying next year – schools like The American University, Towson University and Clark Atlanta University as colleges. She said she keeps up with all of the school's former graduates through the Internet, by helping them with annual financial aid forms and campus visits to see if the students are doing OK.

"I had one student I visited at a college who just hated the school and stayed in her room. I encouraged her to join a club and get involved with the campus and she did and she's still there and loves it. She's going to Italy next fall to study abroad," Shipley said.

While visiting the school last week, 2012 Cristo Rey valedictorian Jazzmen Crafton, a St. Joseph University student, said Shipley helped her when she had a hard time in a chemistry class.

"I was discouraged and felt like I was going to lose my scholarship," Crafton said. "It was very hard for me, so just coming back here and getting reassurance that sometimes you will do poorly in a class and sometimes it takes more hours in the library and more time in the class so you can excel the way you used to."

As these graduates prepare for college, alumni coordinator Shipley is looking forward to next year when the school's first students graduate from college. Sixty-nine percent are currently enrolled in college.