Cristo Rey NY supporters Richard Klarberg and Campbell Gerrish
Members of the Cristo Rey New York High School class of 2019
One of Cristo Rey’s many enthusiastic students
A Rey of Light
BY TOM MCDERMOTT
While the news is often dark and discouraging, 30 miles down the road from our town is Cristo Rey New York High School in East Harlem. It was founded in 2004 to offer young men and women from low-income communities an affordable, high-quality college-prep education, fused with real–life work experience. About 70% of its 400 students are Latino, 30% Black, and 55% are female.
Ninety-nine percent of CRNY students are accepted to college, including some of the most selective – Boston College, Dartmouth, Fordham, NYU, Pomona. More than 81% graduate from college, compared to 15% of CRNY students’ peers. CRNY provides graduates with a Graduate Student Program, including a College 101 prep course and campus visits.
When Rye’s Campbell Gerrish first heard of CRNY, he was winding down his career as founder and Principal of insurance broker Winged Keel and mapping out an active, purposeful retirement. “It sounded so interesting, but I didn’t have enough time,” he recalled. Then, he accepted an invitation to visit the school and was given a tour by its first president, Father Joseph Parkes, who told him, “Just come by and see, no obligation.”
Father Joe hooked him. “Cristo Rey wants students to have a stake in their futures,” said Gerrish. Today, Gerrish is the Co-Chair of CRNY’s Board of Trustees. The school is part of a national network of 37 Cristo Rey High Schools, including one in Brooklyn. It accepts students of all faiths and is supported by the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Child, De Lasalle Christian Brothers, and the Northeast Jesuit Province.
Gerrish drafted his Rye Neck friend, Richard Klarberg, former head of the nonprofit Council on Accreditation, whose 30-year career had connected him to thousands of organizations across the country, to join him as a volunteer supporter of the school.
Central to CRNY’s success is its Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP). One day per week, all students, working in teams, share a job at one of 120 corporate partners in New York City – American Express, JP Morgan Chase, Major League Baseball, and Harper Collins, to name a few. When members of Klarberg’s accreditation staff met with the CWSP corporate partner supervisors, he observed that “his own staff could relate in a powerful way to both the supervisors and the students, since many shared the same backgrounds and desire for success.”
The salaries corporate partners pay for students’ work helps cover the cost of their education, 40% of CRNY’s expenses. Families whose average income is about $31,000, pay about $1,400 for tuition, and Philanthropy must cover more than 50% of the remaining expenses.
In March, due to the Covid-19 lockdown, students were not able to go to work, and many partners were unable to continue paying them. Consequently, the school had a daunting $3 million hole in its budget, and, like many other organizations they could not hold their usual fundraisers. Some students have since been able to return to work remotely, and the school has developed a new remote work program. The big hurt, however, is losing the in-person connection to a professional environment and the opportunity to learn the language and customs of business, which is what CWSP is all about.
It is not uncommon for CRNY President Dan Dougherty, who came to CRNY from Regis and Xavier high schools, to hear that Cristo Rey is a “best–kept secret.” He compares CRNY students’ peers to “trying to swim upstream. If the current doesn’t get them, they can be devoured by bears.” He sees the school as an answer to the maladies plaguing underserved, low-income areas.
CRNY 2010 graduate Daniel Estevez took the subway from his Bronx neighborhood to take the CRNY entry test at the behest of his mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic with a college degree. At first, he had little understanding of the working world of résumés and business dress and had no discernable business skills; his only previous job was helping his father repair automobiles. “In the beginning, you don’t understand,” Estevez said. “You need to build solid social skills in the workplace.”
Estevez said his biggest challenge at school was “fitting into two worlds — my peers in the Bronx who were struggling and Cristo Rey. I wasn’t the best student, but my success is something I earned; some of my old friends still have a hard time understanding that.”
He worked at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where he was exposed to the world of mergers and acquisitions and the highly educated, driven professionals who make them happen. He attended Mercy and John Jay colleges. Over time, he was also able to improve his accounting skills. He currently works in the billing and client accounting department under the management of his original Skadden supervisor. Whenever new CRNY students report to work at the firm, he’s there to greet them.
Gerrish and Klarberg were initially attracted to CRNY because of the opportunity “do something” about the economic and racial divide in the country. As their involvement continued, they have become further motivated by a shared belief that “It works.”
In order to make up for reduced corporate partner, philanthropic, and tuition income, CRNY established a Resilience Fund. On November 16, the school will hold a virtual “Evening of Resilience” to close that gap. Those interested in supporting CRNY can visit https://app.mobilecause.com/e/3ckIEg?vid=dneml or contact Brigid Quinn at 212-457-2806.