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Cristo Rey’s first-ever graduating class prepares for the next big thing: college

SAN JOSE — “UC Riverside … Loyola Marymount … The University of San Francisco …”
The gymnasium lights dimmed Friday morning, as 110 high school seniors strolled proudly across the stage in groups, or ones and twos, to the cheers of beaming teachers, classmates and teary-eyed parents.
“UC Berkeley … Cornell … San Jose State …”
Wearing shy, nervous smiles and identical T-shirts, this “Class of 2018” didn’t grow up in the rarefied academic suburbs of Palo Alto or Cupertino. But the two words printed on their backs were symbolic of their extraordinary accomplishments and the odd they’ve beat as the first graduates of Cristo Rey San José Jesuit High School: “College bound.”
“Santa Clara University … USC … Princeton.”
In the audience were the parents of Coraima Bolaños Alejo, one of the school’s biggest success stories.
“For them to have the experience of seeing their daughter walk on stage… I’m very happy about that,” she said.
Cristo Rey’s inaugural “College Signing Day” was an almost unimaginable milestone four years ago for the first graduating class of this Catholic school on San Jose’s east side.
Together, they had received 500 college and university acceptances in all.
Not only is every member of the class considered low-income, 98 percent of them will be the first in their families to go to college. Some students arrived at Cristo Rey two to three grade levels behind their peers but caught up during their four years at the school with an intensive learning program and in some cases, extra hours of math and English courses.
Every single graduating senior will enroll in college in the fall: about three quarters of the class will attend a four-year university, while the rest will attend community college, according to school administrators.
It’s a remarkable milestone for students like Bolaños Alejo, who just a few years ago was flunking out of the school. Caught up in drugs and violence in her east San Jose neighborhood, Bolaños struggled in class, racked up tardy after tardy and sometimes wouldn’t show up at all.
“I was doing really horribly,” said Bolaños, now 17. “I wasn’t really doing what a 14-year-old or 15-year-old should be doing. I was putting my life at risk and my future at risk. I didn’t want to listen to anybody.”
But in her junior year, Bolaños turned things around, staying long hours after school and meeting often with her parents and school principal Joe Albers to catch up to her peers.
This fall, she’ll be the first in her family to attend college as a freshman at California State University East Bay, where she’ll study business.
“I feel really proud,” Bolaños said. “I don’t know where I’d be without Cristo Rey.”
Albers, the school’s principal, said turn-around stories like Bolaños’ make him the most proud and speak to the school’s mission to empower the region’s most under-served students.
“You’re not going to help all of them get off the (wrong) path but when you do and you see that change and you see the type of person they grow into, it’s really remarkable,” he said.
Founded in 2014, Cristo Rey San José — one of 32 Cristo Rey schools across the country — is the only private high school in east San Jose, serving solely low-income minority students, the vast majority of whom are Latino. Families pay $10-$200 monthly in tuition, depending on their income. On average, parents make less than $30,000 annually for a family of five, according to school administrators.
Donors fund a corporate work-study program in which students are required to work once a week at one of more than 90 nonprofits and corporations throughout the South Bay, including Google, Hewlett Packard, the Tech Museum of Innovation and Stanford’s School of Medicine. The program, considered one of the most critical aspects of the students’ personal and professional growth, covers about half the cost of educating the students.
Administrators and donors attribute Cristo Rey’s success rate to the high expectations they set for students from the moment they step on campus and the unique and intimate support they offer them.
“The model attracts people who have a passion for the success of these kids,” said venture capitalist B.J. Cassin, a Cristo Rey donor and board member. Cassin and his family have helped start college preparatory schools in underserved communities throughout the country.
“There’s a commitment that when a freshman comes in, they will have all the help and resources — and prodding, in many cases — to be successful,” he said.
But as they embark on this new, unknown journey, they face a myriad of obstacles, from financial stress to guilt in leaving their families behind and a burning question: Will I succeed?
Seniors took a college preparedness course for help with college and financial aid applications, and college counselors have met with families to talk about students’ plans for the future. The school also recently hired a graduation counselor who will   check in with students during their first year at college.
Jesus Lara, 17, will study physics at UC Riverside this fall. Like many of his peers, Lara, the eldest of four and the son of immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico, will be the first in his family to go to college. The unknown can be overwhelming, he said.
“It’s kind of stressful because I don’t have that safety net that other parents can offer,” said Lara, whose father is a construction worker and mother is a school janitor. “If I struggle with this or that, my parents wouldn’t know what to do.”
Like Lara, Daisy Rodriguez, 18, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the eldest of three siblings. She’ll attend Princeton in the fall as a molecular biology major — one of a few Cristo Rey students accepted into an Ivy League school. While she credits the school for helping her reach her full potential, Rodriguez said she also struggled to blaze a path toward college.
“With most of us being first-generation students, it was daunting, this entire process,” she said. “So many things came up during my application process… there are some things I couldn’t ask my parents because they wouldn’t know. I don’t have any older siblings to rely on, either.”
But her parents, who only have an elementary school education, are some of her biggest supporters and were her first phone call when she got that acceptance letter from Princeton.
“They always tell me, ‘we don’t have a lot of money so we can’t leave you an inheritance when we die,’” Rodriguez said. “But the one thing we can leave you is an education and knowing that you didn’t have to go through the same situation we did.’”
While any well-to-do Silicon Valley parent would be quick to boast about their child’s accomplishments at dinner tables and on social media — especially when their child is going to Princeton — Daisy’s father, Ricardo Rodriguez, said he and his wife aren’t ones to tout their family’s accomplishments to the world.
“A lot of it has come from her — she’s very dedicated,” he said. “She’s chosen her own path, her destiny.”

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