Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019 | 2 a.m.
The plot of land at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard North and Van Der Meer Street was empty for years.
Now, it’s home to a brand-new Catholic high school with a mission to serve the surrounding North Las Vegas community and people of all faiths, backgrounds and corners of the Las Vegas Valley.
Cristo Rey St. Viator College Preparatory High School opens its doors today to its first-ever class of freshmen. Unlike a typical private school, Cristo Rey offsets most of students’ tuition through a mandatory work-study program, making it more accessible to families with limited economic means. School officials couldn’t release specific rates, but said families pay well below market value.
“We give families the opportunity to attend our school without incurring the financial burden that most private schools would bear,” said Francisco Aguilar, chairman of Cristo Rey’s board of trustees and chief operating officer. “Students are earning their opportunity to be here, which is the real value.”
Students attend classes four days a week from 7:45 a.m. to 3:35 p.m. The other weekday, they work at a partner organization in the Las Vegas area. Those organizations pay Cristo Rey $34,000 for every four students who work for them, which allows the school to keep tuition low.
Twenty-five area corporations and nonprofit groups have committed to participating in the program so far, school officials say, including MGM Resorts International, Bentar Development, United Way of Southern Nevada, Nevada HAND and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Students will perform a variety of tasks at their work placements, some of them administrative, with the opportunity to take on more advanced responsibilities over time.
“Putting a 14-year-old in a professional working environment is sometimes seen as a challenge by the employer, but as that student grows, they actually become really productive and are of value to that company,” Aguilar said.
In preparation of starting their work placements this fall, students went through a mandatory summer training program to help them build a resume and learn other professional and academic skills.
“It is amazing watching them from day one, when they wouldn’t look you in the eye and they didn’t even know how to shake hands, and today they’re walking up to people they don’t even know with confidence, a firm handshake and looking them in the eye,” said Brother Rob Robertson, a school counselor.
Although the work partnership makes Cristo Rey unique from other schools, it’s only one element of the Cristo Rey experience. Like other schools across the country under the Cristo Rey umbrella, Cristo Rey St. Viator prides itself on keeping class sizes small and training students for college. After students graduate, administrators will also track and support them to ensure their success once in college, said Dan Schwartz, director of communications.
“It’s a different approach,” Schwartz said. “We see success as a college degree.”
Balancing academics with work-study isn’t easy, but staff, teachers and students are ready to embrace the challenge, said Marisa Delgado, acting principal. To give students enough time to complete academic assignments and coursework necessary to prepare them for college, the school day and the school year are each extended, Delgado said.
Despite the rigorous academic and professional standards the school holds for its students, Cristo Rey still offers “a normal high school experience” with faith components as well, said school president Father Tom von Behren. Students will have the opportunity to play sports, participate in extracurricular activities, work on service projects, attend school dances and more.
“We talk about workforce (training), but that’s one small part. If we overemphasize that, we’ve lost what it is to be a high school student,” von Behren said.
Anthony Sifuentes is one of 96 students enrolled this year at Cristo Rey. Hailing from southeastern Las Vegas, the 14-year-old said he is excited to attend a school with small classes and opportunities for one-on-one conversations with teachers. For his work placement, he hopes to work with a law firm.
“I like the topic of family law and being able to help families that need that extra help, because I’ve seen stuff happen in my family (and) I want to be able to help at some point,” Sifuentes said.
In the next few years, Cristo Rey hopes to enroll 125 students in each grade, von Behren said.
Although the school does not disclose the exact financial criteria they look for when accepting students, officials said they don’t typically serve students of families who could afford market-rate, private school tuition. When reviewing students’ applications, they look for financial need based on family income and other factors, as well as records of good attendance, discipline and academic performance.
Given that the school is just opening, Cristo Rey offers its incoming students a unique opportunity to shape and influence what will become the school culture, Delgado said.
“We want Cristo Rey St. Viator to be a school where students want to come every single day. We want to build that culture at the leadership level, at the teacher level as well as at the student level,” she said.