CINCINNATI — When DePaul Cristo Rey’s students walk across the stage on May 31, all of them will have plenty to celebrate. They made it through three disruptive years of high school, transitioned through online learning, saw their work study go remote, lost out on countless hands-on opportunities, and yet through it all, every student found a way to end their high school experience the way they hoped.
All 69 graduating seniors were accepted to four-year universities, the eighth consecutive class from DPCR to do so.
Kamaria Gragston said it was difficult to describe the feeling when her first letter of acceptance came in.
“I screamed with joy just knowing that I got accepted to college,” she said. “It was very exciting.”
Looking to study physical therapy, she’ll be attending Marquette University on a full-tuition scholarship, the first in her family to go to college.
“I want to make that big step and dream, and I have younger siblings, so I also want to show them that it is possible to go to college and get your degree,” she said.
According to Gragston, attending DPCR was the first step in achieving that dream. The private college-preparatory school opened in June 2011 with the goal of helping students with the potential but not the financial means to go to college.
Upon acceptance to the high school, Katie Hoekzema, the school’s academic dean, said students are taught higher education is not only a possibility, but an expectation.
“We’re laying the foundation that all students would graduate from high school and college was something that we would say regularly, at school assembly to each other, in literature so students understood not only was there this expectation that you would go to college but we were all working towards that,” she said.
To afford tuition and build their resumes, all students participate in a corporate work study for all four years of their high school experience, allowing them to explore professional fields and expand their hands-on learning opportunities. During the pandemic, though, many of those opportunities were greatly disrupted.
“This class has had to learn to be flexible, and they had to learn that in ways that no one could have ever imagined through COVID,” Hoekzema said.
Many of those work studies shifted remote, with offices closing across Cincinnati. Meanwhile, for much of 2020 and 2021, classes were remote as well.
“It was difficult at first because I’m so used to like hands-on, one-on-one interaction with the teacher,” Gragston said.
Students also missed out on opportunities to participate in many college trips, which Hoekzema said play a big role in helping students motivate themselves to work toward that ultimate goal of higher education.
“Having that understanding that college is not only something they can do but they can have a choice in where they go,” she said.
By the time Gragston was able to return to in-person learning though, she said she felt prepared to navigate the process of college applications, apply for scholarships and financial aid and finish out her high school career.
“I think it made me stronger,” she said.
Once students graduate, Hoekzema said the work does not stop. DPCR will continue to support them through their alumni outreach office designed to help students, especially first-generation students transition into a college environment.
Hoekzema said the office is essential in ensuring those who graduate can finish their four-year program.
“We're just flooding our students with one-on-one attention and support,” she said.
There are 38 Cristo Rey High Schools nationwide operating on the same model, including schools in Columbus and Cleveland.