After the Jesuits took over Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles in 2000, the school began accepting only low-income students and doubling up on core classes. Evidence shows that their Cristo Rey Network model is working: all 60 graduating students of the class of 2013 announced they would be going to college at the school’s commitment day ceremony this year.
The all-male high school in the Watts neighborhood of the city was the subject of a recent feature story in the Los Angeles Times’ Column One section. For the sixth straight year, the college acceptance rate was 100 percent for its almost entirely Latino and African-American students.
This celebration of the school’s success highlights the dramatic changes made in Verbum Dei’s recovery from financial problems. In 2000, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which long kept the school afloat, announced that Verbum Dei was on the verge of closing. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony asked the Jesuits to take over, and they linked the school with the Cristo Rey Network of Catholic schools in 2002, which provides a college preparatory experience for disadvantaged urban teenagers.
By 2009, Verbum Dei was fully operating under the new program. The school, once an athletic powerhouse, directed its focus toward new achievements. “You might not see any more championship athletic banners in the gym,” said Paul Hosch, vice president for mission advancement at Verbum Dei. “But what you will see is five to six college acceptance letters per student.”
Students’ days at Verbum Dei are highly structured, the schedule designed to bring underachieving students to grade level. “Every student here has obstacles or challenges, and we accept that,” Principal Dan O’Connell said. “But that cannot be an excuse. The real world is not going to allow them to use that as excuses.”
The school condenses six years of learning into four, with double sessions of core classes such as English and math. In addition to schoolwork, students work one day during the school week as part of a corporate work-study internship that pays half of their tuition. Parents are asked to pitch in what they can afford, and the remainder of the tuition is made up through grants and fundraising.
School officials said the work at law firms, banks and engineering companies inspires the teens. Ricardo Placensia, who will be attending the University of California, Riverside in the fall, interned at Locke Lord law firm. “I see I made [my mother] proud,” said Placensia. “That’s the one thing I’ve wanted to do.” [Los Angeles Times]