Starting next year, a 14-year-old’s pathway to a private education could involve working at a local casino, bank, law firm, nonprofit or other business.
Consider it akin to a college work-study program, in which students offset their tuition by logging hours at an on-campus job. Except, in this case, the students are younger — but preparing for college — and the jobs aren’t on campus.
This is the concept behind a new Catholic high school opening in North Las Vegas next September. Construction has begun on Cristo Rey St. Viator Las Vegas College Preparatory, located at the corner of North Van Der Meer Street and Las Vegas Boulevard. It will be the first Nevada location for the network of private schools designed for low-income students.
The school will admit an inaugural class of 125 freshman students.
“We’ve been working behind the scenes, and we’re building a brand new school,” said Father Tom von Behren, who will serve as the school’s president. “Once people see this emerging from the ground and the signs are up, they’re going to say, ‘What’s this?’”
A new kind of private school
The Cristo Rey Network, which includes 35 schools across the country, got its start in Chicago in 1996. The Jesuit priests who founded it wanted to create a high school for economically disadvantaged students in the Pilsen neighborhood, which sits in the city’s lower west side and is predominantly Hispanic.
The question, of course, boiled down to money: How could a private school operate without a stable flow of tuition dollars?
Months of discussion led to the work-study concept, which gives students business work experience while providing money for their tuition, said von Behren, who previously served as president of Bishop Gorman High School.
Here’s how it will work in Las Vegas: Five days a month, students donning professional attire will board school-owned vans bound for businesses or corporations that have agreed to partner with the Catholic high school. The students will work entry-level jobs — perhaps in accounting, research, marketing or other areas — for the day. The partners pay Cristo Rey St. Viator $34,500 annually for each team of five students who collectively make up one full-time employee based on a rotating schedule.
The forthcoming school has signed letters of intent with 35 local corporations or businesses, such as MGM Resorts International, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Nevada State Bank, Keating Law Group, LGA Architects, Lotus Broadcasting, UnitedHealthcare, Las Vegas 51s and the United Way of Southern Nevada, among others, von Behren said. Now, they’re developing the job description for each location with the goal of providing students with a meaningful work experience.
The Cristo Rey Network has a waiver from the U.S. Department of Labor that allows all students, regardless of their age, to participate in the work-study program.
“We’re not looking for them to count coins,” von Behren said. “There are some skills we would like them to gain.”
Students will go through an interview process to match with an employer, he said. School officials will do their best to place students in fields they’re considering as a career.
Even so, von Behren said the work-study program doesn’t overshadow academics. The private school considers itself a college-preparatory institution, offering a curriculum that includes Advanced Placement classes and is focused on preparing students for higher education, he said.
And the work aspect doesn’t mean teens get a free pass from attending class. Cristo Rey St. Viator’s day will be roughly an hour longer than most other schools to balance out instructional time.
Ninety percent of Cristo Rey students across the network enroll in college after graduation, and the network’s goal is to one day see 70 percent of its graduate complete four-year degrees. Currently, about 35 percent of former students complete a bachelor’s degree, according to the data provided by the private school network.
“This probably isn’t a school for everyone,” von Behren said. “This is a rigorous college preparatory curriculum.”
The school will add a new grade level each year as its first cohort of freshmen advance. Once Cristo Rey St. Viator is operating as a full high school — with grades nine through twelve — it will be serving about 500 students.
Private schools serve a relatively small slice of Nevada students. Last year, only 4.19 percent of students attended a private school, with the bulk of those students living in Clark County, according to data from the Nevada Department of Education.
Although private schools provide another option in Nevada’s education portfolio, cost can be a barrier. The standard annual tuition rate at Bishop Gorman High School — the only existing Catholic high school in Southern Nevada — is $13,700.
“I think they just see this as a market that has a need,” von Behren said, describing the network’s decision to expand in Las Vegas. “Education is a challenge here.”
At Cristo Rey St. Viator, the work-study program will cover about 60 percent of tuition, von Behren said. The school asks families to contribute something — even if it’s $20 or $50 per month — as a way to invest them in their children’s education, but fundraising covers the other costs.
The only prerequisite: Students must come from low-income families.
Most students selected — through an application process involving interviews and teacher recommendations — will qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on their family’s household income, von Behren said.
What doesn’t matter: religion, race or ethnicity.
The Catholic school hopes to enroll a diverse student body, von Behren said. About 60 percent of students who attend a Cristo Rey school are not Catholic.
“It is moral-based education,” he said. “I think what that offers is kind of a nurturing, safe setting in our world today.”