Harlem school really makes its students work

This story was first published on June 20, 2015

ONE Friday in March, Tyre Richards arrived at her desk at an investment bank in Manhattan.

Although she has worked at Sandler O'Neill for four years, she is not a typical bank employee.

Only 17 years old, she has homework weighing on her mind.

She is a student at Cristo Rey New York, a prep school in East Harlem that offers an ingenious model for private education - it puts students to work.

Once a week, like all of Cristo Rey's 398 students, she leaves the school, gets on the subway and heads to a job at one of 100 white­collar firms in New York City.

Cristo Rey was founded by Father John Foley nearly two decades ago, as a way to provide underprivileged students with an elite education.

The problem was how to pay for it.

The solution was to send the students into the workforce, which would help them learn what it takes to succeed while bankrolling their education.

The businesses got inexpensive labour, the students got real­world experience and a top­flight education, their families got a path out of poverty, and Cristo Rey got the funds to pay for it all.

For applicants to qualify for Cristo Rey, their household income must be below a specific threshold.

Tyre, who had never been to Midtown Manhattan before starting work at Sandler O'Neill, said: "I applied to a few different private schools, but they were just too expensive.

"My mum found that, at Cristo Rey, it would be US$200 (S$270) a month at most."

Today, the network helps educate more than 9,000 students in 28 schools throughout the United States. Almost all of its graduates go to college, compared with 40 per cent of their socioeconomic peers.

Tyre, who is waiting for college acceptance letters, said she would miss her school and her job when she leaves.

"I'm not just graduating from school," she said. "I'm graduating from my job."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'Harlem school really makes its students work'. Subscribe