How Cristo Rey Makes it Work

by Andrew Zaleski, Axis Philly

On this particular Tuesday afternoon in May, Rishaun Hall is in no mood to talk. The 16-year-old sophomore has already had three tests in the morning. As he first takes his seat in science lab, he drops his head into his crossed arms. After a few seconds, however, Hall sits up, grabs a pen and begins scribbling notes on a set of index cards. He was preparing for his biggest assignment yet. In three days’ time, he and three of his classmates must deliver a 15-minute presentation to Mayor Michael Nutter. Hall goes to Cristo Rey Philadelphia, a college-prep high school in North Philadelphia where all students, through the school’s work-study program, take on professional internships at businesses, universities and nonprofits—even the mayor’s office—in addition to their usual coursework.

Every student at the school works five days out of every month at these work-study positions, which include places like PricewaterhouseCoopers, Temple University and the Philadelphia Zoo. On work days, they arrive at school, but just to report in before heading back out into the city. Hall and two classmates run through a PowerPoint they’ve assembled for Friday’s Presentation Day, an overview of everything they’ve learned this year. The other member of their group is only missing because it’s his day to work at City Hall. Each takes a turn explaining different facets of their internship. At this point in their practice, they rarely need to glance down at their index cards of notes. Hall, a seasoned veteran from working at City Hall his freshman year, is talking now, explaining several of the jobs they had to perform: scouring for newspaper clips for the press office, answering phones for the chief of staff, helping to organize Philadelphia S.W.A.G. Week. He tells a story about Kyron Banks, an aide to Mayor Nutter, who taught him how to properly tie the gold-and-blue necktie he’s wearing with his white Oxford and Cristo Rey V-neck sweater. Before, Hall explains, he used to loosen his tie and hang it on his bedroom doorknob. He looks straight ahead, raises his voice and acts like he’s already speaking to a room of city officials.

“I learned how to project my voice to the point where if I need to talk, you will listen,” says Hall, sounding every bit as commanding as the injunction he just uttered. The confidence Hall displays is exactly why school officials tout the work-study program as Cristo Rey’s distinguishing mark. Focusing on so-called soft skills outside the classroom, they say, ensures that when school ends on June 24—every school year lasts 202 days—students will be able to communicate effectively to people years their senior, make eye contact when speaking, know their way around computer programs like Microsoft Office and meet influential mentors. “The entire school and academic scheduling is built around work study,” says Bob Fabiszewski, a private equity veteran of 30 years who directs Cristo Rey’s work-study program. “A 14-year-old kid learning how to ask their supervisor a question when they don’t understand the assignment—that’s important.”