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Schools’ Work-Study Program Offers Unique Glimpse Into Corporate World

Instead of toting her backpack to school on Friday mornings, high school sophomore Kyara Lee strays from her usual schedule to venture outside the classroom. For one day each week, she sets aside her school books to work alongside investment professionals.

Lee remembers her first day of work last September, being nervous as she took the elevator to the 22nd floor of a Chicago high-rise. Her nerves soon settled, and now she completes daily office tasks with ease and confidence.

This is her second year participating in the corporate work-study program at Christ the King College Preparatory High School, which just moved classes to a new $28 million facility in Austin.

“I think it’s a great experience. It’s teaching me what my mom and other adults go through. I’m working to pay a part of my tuition, and I’m learning a lot of new things,” Lee said.

Lee, who — like many of the students attending Christ the King — lives in Austin, hopes to become a lawyer.

All of the 162 students at Christ the King participate in the work-study program once a week at over 160 participating employers around the city. Lee, along with the three other students in her “work-team,” alternates workdays throughout the week to provide the manpower for one full-time, entry-level position at Community Investment Corp. located in the Near West Side community.

“We saw that it was a great opportunity for students who are just coming out of grade school to know what it is to work. Even though the kids are young, they’ve done a great job,” said Monica Kirby, office manager at Community Investment Corp.

Fran Thompson, communications director for Christ the King, said the program creates an opportunity that students wouldn’t normally get from a traditional classroom setting.

“For some students, working these jobs gives them their first visit to the Loop, and there they are going up an elevator in a skyscraper to work in a financial office,” Thompson said.

Christ the King is part of a national group of 24 Jesuit schools operated by the Cristo Rey Network. Although this is the school’s second year in Austin, it moved into the new 100,000-square-foot, three story building earlier this month. The school is located at 5088 W. Jackson Blvd., on the site of the former Resurrection Parish.

Each one of the 24 Cristo Rey Network nationwide schools, including one in Pilsen, employs the work-study program.

“The premise began as a solution,” said Preston Kendall, vice-president of the corporate work-study program. “We wanted to open a college prep high school what would serve families with limited resources, and we wanted a model where we wouldn’t need to raise tuition.”

The work done by students in local businesses funds 65 percent of each student’s tuition, said Kendall. The other 35 percent is made up of family contribution and scholarships.

“It started out as a solution to a financial problem, but we soon discovered very quickly that this is a multi-faceted program. It gives students ownership of earning their education,” said Kendall.

Studies done by the Cristo Rey Network showed a need for schools in Austin, a community of more than 100,000 with high unemployment and no neighborhood public high school, said Thompson, communication director for Christ the King. It found that Austin needs 14,000 seats for students, yet only offers 7,000.

“There is a humongous shortage in this area,” Thompson said.

When at full capacity, the new school should hold around 600 students. The school, which currently has 162 students, will add a new class each year, Thompson said. It is currently running with only a freshman and sophomore class.

“We are not trying to only pull the cream of the crop students here, we are also looking for the average and above-average, hard-working students who otherwise may have fallen through the crack,” she said.

Kendall said the admissions office at Christ the King looks at academic and financial history, yet concentrates mostly on past behavior and attendance reports.

Currently, the majority of Christ the King students are coming from a few key areas, said Kendall, including: East and West Garfield Park, Lawndale, Humboldt Park and Austin.

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