It’s almost 8 p.m. when Kiontea finally closes his textbook. After three hours of working on math problems, it’s time to head home. A train, two buses and nearly two hours later, he drops his bag and soon after drops into bed.

Early the next morning, Kiontea knots his tie and dutifully tucks in his shirt. Like thousands of other D.C. commuters, he will soon huddle onto a crowded Metro car on his way to work.

Sound like a night student working to put himself through college?

More like a 14-year-old working to put himself through high school.

Kiontea and his classmates at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Md., all work one day each week in local corporations in order to fund 70 percent of their tuitions. The work consists of entry-level jobs at such esteemed corporations as Fannie Mae, C-SPAN and Chevy Chase Bank. Many among us must silently envy the impressive resumes these high school freshmen already possess.

Six students, including Kiontea, work in different offices throughout the Georgetown campus. A budding architect, Kiontea works in the Dahlgren Memorial Medical Library. “I normally sit at the front desk and type notes or help people find books, but last week my boss had me draw floor plans to show where all the thermostats were,” explained Kiontea with a big smile.

Kiontea is a product of D.C. public schools and would have remained there if not for Don Bosco Cristo Rey. His chief motivation is one most of our students share: “College. I have dreams for myself and want them to come true. The only way is to go to college and get my degree. This school will get me there.”

He continues, “I want to be an architect and start my own business. I want to build and design, unleash my ideas and express my creativity. One day, I want people to invest in my company on Wall Street.”

For a future businessman like Kiontea, the work program proved a major selling point when deciding to enroll. He tells of the excitement of starting his first job; the pride of wearing professional dress; the empowerment of responsibility.

Therein lies the magic of Cristo Rey. What started as a solution to a financial problem has blossomed into a powerful educational tool. Our students see firsthand the possibilities that exist for them and suddenly careers in medicine, law and business seem much more attainable. The jobs show the practical purposes of what we learn in school, providing a preemptive answer to the favorite question of all teachers: “What’s the point of learning this?” Finally, and most of all, these jobs, while not glamorous, are both real and important, and the students learn perhaps the most important of all lessons: responsibility.

Make no mistake about it – Don Bosco Cristo Rey is still a high school with the time-honored traditions of homework, detention and mediocre cafeteria food. What makes us unique is our affiliation with Cristo Rey, a network of schools unified by the innovative work-study program and a shared commitment to educating a segment of the population that otherwise could not afford it. All Cristo Rey schools provide rigorous college preparatory educations, and the track record speaks for itself. Ninety-eight percent of Cristo Rey students graduate and 95 percent attend college. The five Cristo Rey graduates currently enrolled at Georgetown are living examples of our success.

This academic success comes through a longer school day and year, but mostly through high expectations and strong commitments from faculty and students. Kiontea explains “Teachers expect more out of me because they know I can do it.”

We are just three months into our first year at Don Bosco Cristo Rey. Our students and their families, desperate for high-quality but affordable education, signed up for a school that at the time had neither a building nor a faculty. They, like the rest of us, were hooked by the power of the mission.

Our students are bright and motivated but enter ninth grade with ground to make up. Nonetheless, my three months at the school have shown me that “bright and motivated” is a lethal combination for narrowing the achievement gap.

I write this Viewpoint to spread the word about Kiontea and all of our incredible students, but also to ask for help. As an understaffed and underfunded start-up, we lack the resources to give students the more personal academic attention they deserve after school. To meet this need, I am starting a tutoring program at our school staffed by Georgetown volunteers.

When asked about his dreams, Kiontea offered these words: “I want people to say, `He wasn’t lying. He made it somewhere.’ I want to set an example for people who don’t believe in themselves. You had a dream. I had a dream. I made mine come true. If I can do it, so can you.”

Our students are certainly future leaders and maybe even future Hoyas. Please consider helping them make it to where you already are – college.

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