Cristo Rey Research Triangle High School welcomed its inaugural freshman class this fall to American Tobacco Campus
By Brandee Gruener | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Two freshmen huddle over their laptops at Cristo Rey Research Triangle High School, waiting for assignments from their employers at Cisco. Both John Cortes, of Durham, and Logan Talbot, of Raleigh, say they have an interest in programming and networking. The opportunity to participate in a work-study program and gain real experience was a major draw to enrolling at the new Catholic high school.
“You get one day out of the week to experience what it’s like to go in the workplace,” John says. “So far, it’s been great.”
Cristo Rey is part of a nationwide network of 38 Catholic high schools dedicated to providing work-study experience and a college preparatory curriculum for students from low-income families. It’s Durham’s only Catholic high school and just opened its doors in August to 82 freshmen, almost all students of color and all from families who qualify for free or reduced lunch. The school’s unique tuition model asks families to contribute $70 a month, with the rest covered by fundraising and by wages that students earn from companies like Cree Wolfspeed, NC Subway Group, the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin, ZenBio and N.C. State’s College of Engineering.
Unlike many private schools, grades are not necessarily a limiting factor for admission to Cristo Rey (applicants also do not have to be Catholic). Motivation and maturity are strong considerations in acceptance. Students must be ready to wear a uniform and tie, have a longer school day and start the year early. In July, students participated in a “draft day” with area companies and attended a two-week program learning the soft skills needed to be successful in business.
“You’ve got to really want to do this, because it’s not for everybody,” says Mike Fedewa, the school’s president. “I have been so delightfully impressed with the caliber of young men and women that we have seen come through our doors.”
Mike was superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Raleigh and close to retirement when a couple familiar with the Cristo Rey Network in the Northeast pitched the idea of opening a school in the Triangle. He was sold on joining the school, like most of the families and students he’s talked to. “The enthusiasm of the students is catching,” Mike says.
The majority of Cristo Rey Research Triangle’s students are from Durham, but others come from Raleigh, Chapel Hill and even Burlington. School leaders did not want families to be limited by the ability to reach campus, so students are provided with bus transportation if they need it.
Cristo Rey Research Triangle operates in a 35,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by American Underground at the American Tobacco Campus. Offices were transformed into classrooms, but many of the glass walls and polished concrete floors remain. Students wander out for lunch in their uniforms alongside corporate workers, some from companies that are supporting the school. “I love walking down to the campus and seeing the kids in their ties and being a part of the community,” says Michael Goodmon, a Cristo Rey board member and senior vice president of real estate at Capitol Broadcasting Company. He suggested the space at ATC after planners chose Durham as the best location for a school serving Cristo Rey’s demographic.
Michael says he was impressed by the Cristo Rey Network’s “undeniable success” in getting more than 90% of its students accepted to college. Cristo Rey also boasts that graduates are three times as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree by age 24 when compared to the total U.S. low-income population. That track record is among the reasons that Capitol Broadcasting is also a financial supporter of the school.
Investing in successful community projects with positive outcomes “is something we’ll do all day long,” Michael says, adding that the school provides an amazing opportunity for students to “shape their vision of what they want to be and what they can do.”
Mike, who spent 25 years as a superintendent at Catholic schools across the state, agrees.
“In my career, I’ve never seen a high school model as transformative as this,” he says.