Sunday, September 12, 2010

Abp. Wuerl Blesses Don Bosco Cristo Rey HS Expansion

Abp. Wuerl
Blesses Expansion
at Don Bosco Cristo Rey HS
Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., came to Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School (DBCR) in Takoma Park, Md., on Tuesday morning, Sept. 7, to celebrate the Mass of the Holy Spirit at the opening of the new school year and to help the school celebrate its growth as shown in a new addition to its building. The Mass was celebrated in Our Lady of Sorrows Church, next door to the school.

DBCR is co-owned by the Salesians and the archdiocese of Washington, governed by a board of directors representing the SDBs, the archdiocese, and members of the wider community, and administered by the SDBs. The school is starting its fourth year of operation; so this is its first year with a full complement of freshmen (87), sophomores (63), juniors (65), and seniors (72)—287 boys and girls in all. The staff includes 4 full-time SDBs and 45 lay teachers, administrators, and support personnel.

Don Bosco Cristo Rey is part of the national Cristo Rey Network. Last year, there were 24 Cristo Rey schools nationwide preparing low-income students to enter college.

The Eucharistic celebration took place on the second full day of school; orientation and the first day of class were Aug. 30-Sept. 3.

The students participated enthusiastically in the Mass of the Holy Spirit, attended also by some of their parents, board members, corporate sponsors, and benefactors of the school. Fr. Raymond Wadas, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church; Msgr. John Enzler, vicar of development for the archdiocese; Fr. Steve Shafran, president of DBCR; Fr. George Hanna, SDB, director of the SDB community and pastor of Nativity Church in Washington; and Fr. Dominic DeBlase, SDB, of Nativity Church concelebrated with Abp. Wuerl.
A student choir and student musicians under the direction of Fr. Abe Feliciano, director of faith formation at DBCR, provided the music. As is usual at Salesian celebrations with young people, the most rousing hymn was the recessional, “Friend of the Young and the Poor,” which Fr. Steve Schenck composed in 1998 to help celebrate the centennial of our New Rochelle Province.

Immediately following the 8:00 a.m. Mass, Abp. Wuerl blessed the addition to the school building, which houses administrative and guidance offices and a library, as well as a new main entrance. Together with benefactors, staff members, and students, he cut ribbons at four key points in the building: the front door, the entrance of the main office, the central hallway between the new offices and some of the old classrooms, and the library. One academic class was positioned at each ribbon-cutting station.
Everyone poses before cutting the ribbon at the school's new entrance: Msgr. John Enzler, Maureen and Beth Hendricks, a senior student, Abp. Wuerl, another senior, Fr. Steve Shafran, and a board member.

In his welcome of Abp. Wuerl and the other guests at the start of Mass, Fr. Shafran noted the significance of the prayerful gathering: a new class just started school; the school has its first senior class; there’s a new building; and both school and students are taking another step in their lives.

The archbishop began his homily by saying that the Mass indicated a triumph for DBCR after a touch-and-go beginning five and six years ago, when getting the school organized, financed, and off the ground was a huge question mark. Abp. Wuerl proudly noted its growth as seen in a class of seniors, a new freshman class, and a new building.

But the core of his homily tackled the questions, “What does the Church bring to young people? What does DBCR offer them?” He suggested three answers: (1) an academically excellent education; (2) a context of moral values for focusing and guiding lives; (3) intangible opportunities to grow in self-confidence, respect for others, and hope for the future.
DBCR, said the archbishop, helps students answer the question, “How shall I live?” It assures them that God will be with them in their lives, that they are part of his family. It encourages them so to live in our demanding, highly technological world that they will make the world a better place by being all that God asks them to be. In seeking answers to the question of how to live and in meeting life’s challenges, they are assured of the presence of the Holy Spirit whom they invoked in this Mass, with his gifts of courage, fortitude, etc.

Abp. Wuerl’s homily echoed part of the DBCR mission statement: “…our mission is to provide a rigorous educational program of academics and corporate work-study that will prepare our graduates for college with the Christian values essential to a successful and fulfilling life.”

Just before the final dismissal of the Eucharistic liturgy, Fr. Shafran expressed thanks: to Christ, to Mary Help of Christians (who, he said, has already worked miracles in DBCR’s students), and to those who planned, built, and furnished the new building. He singled out the John and Maureen Hendricks Charitable Foundation, and the school made a presentation in appreciation to Maureen and Beth Hendricks, who were present.

Students also presented token gifts such as a DBCR baseball cap to Abp. Wuerl, and the archbishop presented to the school a plaque depicting Jesus announcing the Good News of God’s kingdom.
As part of the ritual blessing at the entrance of the school, the archbishop prayed that the Word of God would always echo in the school, since that Word is truth, which is the goal of all learning.
Outside the DBCR entrance the archbishop made a few remarks and offered a blessing prayer.

After the blessing and the four ribbon-cuttings, there was a reception in the cafeteria, offering pastries, coffee, milk, and juice to guests and students. Then several senior students took any guests who wished on guided tours of the school, including a few students from St. Augustine School in the District. Parents and board members praised the quality of the tours.

Catholic schools (both parochial and private) supplied 39% of the new ninth graders. Another 49% come from regular public schools, and the balance from charter schools. 39% of last year’s enrolled students were District residents; the rest were from suburban Maryland. In the new freshman class, only 22% are from the District.

No one had precise figures at hand, but Fr. Feliciano estimates that about 55% of the student body are Catholic. All the students take theology courses and attend Catholic religious services. The non-Catholics know that’s a requirement and show interest in learning about a different faith, says Bro. Tom Sweeney of the theology department.

All the students belong to minority groups. The majority are Hispanic (53% last year, 62% of the new freshmen), 1% Asian, and the rest blacks (some African-Americans, some whose families have come recently from the Caribbean or Africa).

Abp. Wuerl stops to greet seniors outside DBCR.
More of the students are female (53% last year, 54% of freshmen this year) than male.

The school recruits students in many ways that would be familiar to any Catholic high school: visits to nearby Catholic and public schools, presentations at high school fairs and to elementary school guidance counselors, tours of the school, and “shadow” opportunities for prospective individual students. In addition, DBCR uses the Latino Student Fund and other community organizations to identify likely students.

The primary eligibility criterion for a prospective student is poverty, says Fr. Shafran. As the DBCR mission statement puts it, “Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School provides a college-preparatory program for highly motivated young men and women with limited financial opportunities.” Locally, the federally determined poverty level is an annual income of $35,000 or less for a family of four. Almost three-fourths of DBCR students (72%) live in one-parent families, and 75% qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.

Running DBCR is costly, of course. Fr. Shafran says it costs $13,400 per student per year. The corporate work study program supplies $7,500 of that. The nominal tuition (or “parental responsibility,” as the school calls it) is $2,500, but relatively few families actually pay that much. All pay something; the amount is negotiated individually according to ability to pay, for which DBCR uses the Private School Aid Service.
The original DBCR buildings--the gym is at right--were the parochial school of Our Lady of Sorrows. The new addition fronting on Larch Ave. is at left.
The SDBs have granted the school $200,000 a year for five years; next year that grant will conclude. The balance of needed funding comes from $180,000 in need-based scholarship money from the archdiocese and from various types of fundraising, which keeps Fr. Shafran and the development office personnel quite busy—to the tune of a million dollars annually to fund the operational budget. (In addition, there’s a loan from the archdiocese to be repaid.) Fr. Shafran has found Msgr. Enzler “phenomenal” in his willingness to help the school and in the contacts that he provides.

The corporate work study program is the core of DBCR’s funding as well as one of the vital components of its educational offerings. The number of corporate sponsors—companies that offer salaried jobs to DBCR students—and thus the amount of funding available to pay for student tuitions in large part determines the number of students who can be accepted into each freshman class. Last year the economy had a severe impact on local companies’ capacity to offer jobs, and the school suffered accordingly—and could take in fewer freshmen (this year’s sophomores) than desired. According to Fr. Shafran, the ideal student body would number 450-500, meaning that 100-125 corporate sponsors would be needed, along with “parental responsibility,” to cover operating expenses.

Fr. Steve Shafran, president of DBCR
Of course a larger enrollment will also mean more building has to be done. On these first two days of school (Sept. 3 and 7), the only ones in which all the students were in class instead of a fourth of them being at their corporate jobs, it was a scramble to juggle schedules to find space for all 287 of them from one period to another.

One of the challenges for the DBCR staff is that so many of the entering students come with poor academic and personal skills. To prepare 13- and 14-year-olds to enter the work force, each freshman class goes through three weeks of “boot camp” in August. They’re taught basic job skills like how to interview, dress, use business machines (fax, computer, copier), file documents, answer the telephone, address people professionally, give a handshake, make eye contact. They learn the rules that govern work permits for minors, learn about confidentiality, and learn how to use the Metro, which is how most of them will get to and from their work places.

Most of the students are highly appreciated at their jobs. But sometimes there are problems, and a student may be terminated, e.g., for not focusing sufficiently on his or her work or not complying with company rules. Then the school has to replace the student with another—there’s a contractual obligation to fill the job—and to retrain the “failing” student and place him or her in another position as soon as possible.

Three full-time staff members work at finding corporate sponsors, placing the students, and following them up. Bro. Sweeney assists them, in addition to teaching four theology classes. Fortunately, the economic climate is improving, and sponsors are easier to find this year—68 companies are presently enlisted. These include schools and colleges, hospitals, law firms, accountants, construction companies, Catholic Charities, the U.S. Department of Education, and more.

In school there are challenges concerned with behavior and academic performance. The family and neighborhood environments from which the students come have a dramatic effect on performance, according to Bro. Sweeney and Elias Blanco, an assistant to the principal. Some have been pushed prematurely into adult roles in the family; many have low self-esteem or low self-confidence; many have difficulty focusing on the task at hand. Naturally, many of them have the sorts of priorities often found in teens, like friends, recreation, and consumer goods.

To address academic issues, student volunteers come in twice a week from Georgetown University to offer tutoring. There’s a double benefit to that, says Ann Kerrigan of the corporate work study staff: 1st, the DBCR kids get help learning subject matter; 2nd, they interact with college students who become role models for them.

Various staff members cite the visible growth in students—personal and religious—as the great reward of working at DBCR. The seniors have become self-confident and appropriately mature young women and men. They’re taking on leadership roles in the school. They, and even more so the juniors, are looking toward higher education after DBCR—something that wasn’t in their wildest dreams while they were in elementary or middle school. Perhaps all this constitutes the “miracles” that Fr. Shafran credits to Mary Help of Christians.

Maritza Velasquez, the guidance counselor, says that most of the first graduating class will stay close to home. A couple may attend Georgetown, and others are considering the University of Maryland, the University of the District of Columbia, Catholic University, Howard University, George Mason University, and Montgomery College. Some are looking at Xavier University in New Orleans, and one really wants to go to Princeton (Ms. Velasquez says she has a good chance).

At the end of the blessings and ribbon-cuttings, the archbishop thanked and blessed the 3 servers who'd accompanied him thru Mass and the blessings.

Another reward for staff is seeing the students become Salesian in spirit. The SDBs have worked hard and effectively at that, in addition to the academic, work, and personal growth aspects of student life. Various staff have the highest praise for all of them, and Fr. Shafran also credits the support of the whole SDB community, based at Nativity Parish. Under Fr. Feliciano’s leadership, students have already taken part in two Gospel Roads programs, one local and one at Haverstraw-Stony Point.

One new staff member at DBCR is Kelly Schuster, a Salesian Domestic Volunteer (see entry below dated Aug. 11) from Newark, Del., who graduated this spring from DeSales University and is teaching theology and serving in campus ministry. Although present only a couple of weeks, she’s already credited as a great addition to the staff.

Fr. Abe Feliciano and Kelly Schuster spoke with a reporter after the dedication of the new building, which includes the faith formation office.

Despite the financial, academic, and personal challenges, there’s a definite air of optimism throughout DBCR. “We’re here to stay,” Fr. Shafran assured Abp. Wuerl and everyone else at Mass.

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