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Don Bosco Cristo Rey, ‘The School that Works,’ continues innovative work study program during pandemic

Like other students participating in the Corporate Work Study Program at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland, Jennifer Ramirez learned to work remotely during the pandemic. Now a senior, she works at San Miguel School in Washington in addition to taking college preparatory classes at her high school. (Photo courtesy of Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School)

Known as “The School that Works,” Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland, has had to pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic and devise new ways for its students to work. The Catholic high school – known for its rigorous college preparatory curriculum for minority students from families with limited economic means and for its innovative Corporate Work Study Program, where students gain experience working at leading Washington-area businesses and help pay for most of their education costs – suddenly had to adjust its academic and work programs when local school campuses closed in mid-March 2020 due to the pandemic.

That weekend, the teachers and staff at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, like educational leaders at other area Catholic schools, had to transition to virtual learning for their students, which they continued to complete that school year and for the 2020-21 school year, until students returned together for in-person learning there this past August for the current school year.

But the Corporate Work Study Program staff and participating students also faced the challenge of continuing that program at a time when many businesses and institutions began working remotely as a safety precaution during the pandemic.

“We certainly took a substantial hit during the pandemic,” said Ana Chapa, the executive vice president at Don Bosco Cristo Rey, which is sponsored by The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and the Salesians of Don Bosco and is part of the national Cristo Rey Network of schools. Chapa noted that as the pandemic shutdown unfolded, “We lost about 50 percent of our job partners, and 50 percent of the revenue of the work study department.”

Now the program has 60 corporate partners working with the school’s 380 students.

 “The good news is many of those (partners) have been able to come back in this school year, but certainly not all. We’re hopeful that they’ll be able to come back next school year,” she said.

Chapa praised the business partners for continuing to work with the students during a challenging time.

“So many of them out and out said, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to make this work, but we’re committed to figuring it out. We want to continue to support you. We know your students need it now more than ever, and you can count on our support,’” she said, remembering how many of the corporate partners reacted to the crisis.

A few workplaces continued welcoming students to their job sites, but most shifted to telework programs for their employees and for the Don Bosco Cristo Rey students, and Chapa said the students took their classroom and workplace transitions in stride.

“I think the students were incredible. They dealt with everything that we adults were dealing with, in addition to balancing school and work,” she said, noting that like the adults, students also had to grapple with, and problem solve, technical issues in the new remote environment. “They (students) stayed motivated. They kept working hard.”

That point was echoed by Mark K. Shriver, the president at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, who said, “The students are inspiring. They work so hard in high school, not only academically, but also working at a job. The fact they continued during COVID shows an amazing amount of dedication.”

According to the school, 87 percent of the students at Don Bosco are Hispanic, and 13 percent are African American. Since Don Bosco Cristo Rey opened in 2007 as the newest Catholic high school in the archdiocese and had its first graduating class in 2011, 100 percent of its graduates have been accepted into college, and many of them have been the first members of their families to attend college.

‘Everything was changing’

When the pandemic happened, the school’s students faced new challenges in the classroom and at their jobs.

“Everything was changing constantly, the COVID rules, the (school) programming, and their job expectations,” Chapa said. “They stayed engaged, attentive, flexible and motivated through it.”

She noted how the students, like their professional colleagues, were learning to navigate a new way to work.

“They were going through the same things their coworkers were going through. The hands-on experience was just different,” she said. “They were figuring out how to do Zoom calls, and figuring out how to do Microsoft Teams, and chat features, to make sure they kept projects moving forward. They weren’t doing the in-person (work), but it was still professional work experience and skill building.”

Chapa praised how the school’s Corporate Work Study Program staff, and the corporate partners, worked to prepare and equip the students with new skills for the future workforce.

“I think the future of work looks different,” she said. “I am confident now that all our students can effectively telework… As they launch their careers, they are probably going to telework at some point, and now they know they can do that.” Chapa added, “Telework is here to stay.”

Students’ perspectives

Like her fellow Don Bosco Cristo Rey students, senior Jacqueline Alvarez has gained a variety of professional experiences in the Corporate Work Study Program. The Washington, D.C. resident worked for the Bright Beginnings childcare program during her freshman year, at the Sidley Austin law firm during her sophomore year, then remotely doing office work for Total Wine & More during her junior year, then continuing working in-person for that company during her senior year.

At her Takoma Park high school, Don Bosco Cristo Rey senior Jacqueline Alvarez stands near a statue of St. John Bosco, the school’s patron saint. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

Alvarez said she sometimes dealt with Internet issues working online, but she learned how to transmit things like Excel sheets via email. “I’ve been learning how to take initiative” while working on something that needs to be done, she said, adding that as a shy person when she started, she learned to be more social and to speak up when she needs help.

“I’m still not sure what I want to do career-wise. I know I do want to help people. Every single job I had, was to help around,” Alvarez said.

Obe Aaron, a junior from Washington, participated in a business entrepreneurship program during his freshman year that was piloted at his school by The Catholic University of America, where students were encouraged to work in groups and come up with ideas for a business, like a school store where they could sell snacks and merchandise.

Then in the 2020-21 school year during the pandemic, he was among 100 Don Bosco students who took part in a virtual program offered by Accenture, a professional services firm, where they learned workplace skills and how to handle situations at a job.

“It helped me to understand when I have to go in person for a job, I have to maintain respect and keep my boundaries with my coworkers… and if I need any assistance, to always ask for help and not just rely on myself,” he said.

Aaron said taking classes virtually during the last school year was “kind of tough. I don’t really like virtual learning. I don’t think that’s the best way for people to learn. I still made it through, and I still learned a lot of skills.”

Don Bosco Cristo Rey junior Obe Aaron (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

This year, Aaron is working mostly virtually for Pepco in downtown Washington, which he said he has appreciated, because he is learning about the work that various professionals do there, and “if engineering is the right career for me.”

The student, who hopes to major in sociology and engineering management when he goes to college, said, “Working at Pepco has been great!”

Emeli Alvarez, a Don Bosco Cristo Rey junior from Washington, also said she has learned to take initiative and speak up for herself during her varied experiences in the Corporate Work Study Program.

This school year, she is working virtually for Payroll Network, Inc., where she has helped with social media and a marketing campaign and assisted the tax department with mailings. “This year has been a little out of my comfort zone,” she said. “This time, it’s working on my computer, working on my own tasks.”

In her freshman year, she worked as a teacher’s assistant for the prekindergarten at St. Augustine Catholic School in Washington, and as a sophomore, she worked virtually with Empowering the Ages, a program based in Rockville, Maryland, that brings together people from different generations.

With Empowering the Ages, she was among students who participated in weekly virtual conversations with senior citizens at Springvale Terrace in Silver Spring.

“I’ve never had that experience to talk to the elderly, so it really expanded the skills I had,” Alvarez said. “I’m not really a talkative person when it comes to adults, but being able to talk to seniors really helped me overcome that.” She added, “I learned there’s many difference in all the ages and generations.”

Don Bosco Cristo Rey junior Emeli Alvarez (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

Alvarez said her experiences through the Corporate Work Study Program will help her in her career.

“I never worked with kids before coming to Don Bosco. I was always interested in wanting to help other people and help kids. In the future, I want to be a neonatal nurse in charge of newborn babies,” she said, adding that her experience working with adults and talking to seniors will help her talk to families when she is a nurse.

Don Bosco Cristo Rey students, from left to right, Obe Aaron, Emeli Alvarez and Jacqueline Alvarez have gained varied work experiences through the high school’s Corporate Work Study Program. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

Corporate partners’ perspectives

The corporate partners working with Don Bosco Cristo Rey said that partnership has been worthwhile for their businesses or organizations, for the students and for the community.

Leah Bradley, the executive director of Empowering the Ages, noted that 10 Don Bosco students have participated in the program in each of the past two school years, with the students like Emeli Alvarez connecting with seniors for the weekly virtual get-togethers.

She noted that many students in this area don’t know their grandparents, either because they are deceased, in another country or live elsewhere in the United States.

 “There’s so much that generations can learn from each other,” she said, noting that “the whole goal was forming a connection and learning together.”

During the loneliness and isolation of the pandemic, that connection between the ages was vital, Bradley said.

“We know that during the pandemic, the two generations that struggled with mental health the most have been older adults and teenagers,” she said.

The agency has also partnered with Catholic Charities and with Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington and Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac. Speaking of the benefit for the Don Bosco students, Bradley said, “It’s important for kids to understand, whatever field they go in, they will work with individuals older than themselves. We’re trying to give them this experience in communication, empathy and sensitivity to different age groups.”

Kathy Klenner, the president of Payroll Network, noted that this is her company’s fourth year of partnering with Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, and they were able to continue working with students throughout the pandemic. “We pivoted from an in-house to a virtual (work) assignment,” she said.

That partnership was “especially important” during this challenging time, Klenner said.

“It allowed us to make sure we were able to provide enrichment in a remote environment to our students,” she said, saying that helped the next generation learn skills in bridging the gap between an in-person and remote work environment.

Klenner said service, both to their clients and to the community, is a core value of their business, and partnering with the school and working with the students reflects that mission.

Mallory Heinrich, the digital marketing manager for Payroll Network, has worked with Don Bosco student Emeli Alvarez during this school year. She said Alvarez has offered new, fresh ideas for their social media work, and along the way she learned about marketing and gained a lot of technical skills.

“I’m definitely confident she’ll be able to use those skills in the future,” Heinrich said.

For Nigel Rosser, a senior manager of engineering and design for Pepco, working with and mentoring students like Don Bosco’s Obe Aaron, and helping them learn about engineering and related fields, has personal meaning.

“I’m a fourth generation Washingtonian, a graduate of McKinley Technology High School,” said Rosser, who went on to earn an electrical engineering degree from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. “It means the world to me to give back. I say all the time, I wish when I was coming up, some of these opportunities for students existed for me.”

Rosser, who like Obe Aaron is African American, said it is important for a company’s workforce to reflect the community that it serves. He said he hopes the participating students gain professional knowledge and skills, and perhaps some of them might one day be a part of the future workforce at Pepco.

Talking about Pepco’s partnership with Don Bosco’s Corporate Work Study Program, which began in 2013, was paused last year during the pandemic and resumed this school year, he said, “We’re giving back to our community. We have a social responsibility, being a part of this community.”

Don Bosco Cristo Rey senior Christian Castillo, shown in an earlier photo when he was working with the Accenture professional services firm through his high school’s Corporate Work Study Program, now works in the office of Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen through the work study program while he takes college preparatory classes at his school. (Photo courtesy of Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School)

‘A real partnership’ 

Ana Chapa, the school’s executive vice president, praised that commitment of the corporate partners, noting that even more businesses and institutions have come aboard this year to give work opportunities to the Don Bosco Cristo Rey students.

“We need to get the word out that we need job partners for our kids,” she said.

She noted that in the social reckoning in the United States these past two years, as movements for racial justice, equity and inclusion have grown and businesses and organizations are seeking more diversity in the workplace, “our program is an ideal initiative” for those institutions to partner with.

“We serve almost exclusively students of color, and the purpose of our program is to create access and opportunities for young minority students who otherwise wouldn’t have that,” she said, adding the work study program provides “an opportunity for employees to see their company is making that a priority.”

She said companies can see that “investing with us is helping to create or strengthen a talented and diverse pipeline of staff.”

In that way, the program benefits both the students and the corporate partners, Chapa said. “That’s what makes a real partnership, when both are seeing the value in it.”

Mark K. Shriver serves as the president of Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland, and Ana Chapa is the school’s executive vice president. The Catholic high school, which features a college preparatory academic program and an innovative Corporate Work Study Program, is sponsored by The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and the Eastern Province of the Salesians of Don Bosco. (CS photo by Andrew Biraj)

Speaking about Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School’s Catholic identity and how its college preparatory and work study programs reflect that, Mark Shriver – the school’s president – noted how Pope Francis emphasizes the dignity of work and the importance of accompanying people on their journey in life.

“Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School is opening up the world of work to our students, exposing them to different careers,” Shriver said. “When Pope Francis talks about accompaniment, that’s what the school is all about. The whole community is helping to educate the students, not just the faculty and staff, but our corporate partners at the work sites.”

Shriver added, “It is ‘The School that Works,’ that works academically, at the job site and on your relationship with God. That’s what makes us unique.”