Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A taste of the real world at new Newark school
Work-study program to give teens business experience

by Jeff Diamont
Star-Ledger Staff

Most children entering high school don't have to worry about workplace etiquette.

But for the 106 freshmen at a new Catholic high school in Newark, Christ the King Preparatory, it is essential to know, right now, how to communicate with adult colleagues, answer office phones, and give off a professional air at the workplace.

The students, from low-income families, will be doing clerical work in offices one day a week, and the salaries they receive will go toward the budget of their school. The new high school is part of a national urban network of Cristo Rey (Christ the King) schools that have won accolades for high rates of graduation and college attendance.

Office decorum doesn't always come naturally to kids, so the students spent three weeks in August at the school in a boot camp of sorts, learning to type, file records, give firm handshakes, tie a tie, and speak appropriately to bosses. They also are reading the best-selling book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens."

"Sucking your thumb would be a bad habit" for the office, Pam Rauscher, a teacher and admissions officer at the school, joked in class last week, before quizzing students on the book's lessons about proactive thinking, communicating and setting priorities.

The belief is that by meeting workplace realities, students will be more mature, less likely to drop out, and better qualified for college and the work world. Those interviewed said the workshop classes have helped them, even if they would rather spend their August days with friends at beaches or the mall.

"It has helped me as far as communicating," said Petrae Simpson, 14, of East Orange, who hopes her weekly job is at a law firm. "I listen to people more, in the form of eye contact and body language ... I've learned to listen to how others feel, see things from another person's point of view. I show less of an attitude."

Monica Nunes, 14, of Newark, said she expects her adult colleagues to be impressed by her workplace habits and those of her peers.

"The people in the job are gonna be like, 'Wow! That's a 14-year-old?'" she said.

About 25 companies -- including Broadway House, City National Bank, Seton Hall University Law School, Parsons Brinckerhoff and The Star-Ledger -- are paying Christ the King $25,000 for the year to "hire" four students one day a week. The students will be taking classes at the school the other four days.

School administrators hope at least some of the students can secure summer internships from these employers, as students have done at Christ the King schools elsewhere, said Anthony Nicotera, director of development for the Newark school.

"If they (the students) are observant, they'll come to understand how it is that certain firms and corporations and industries work," he said.

When it opens Sept. 4, the Newark school will be one of 19 Christ the King schools nationwide. The first opened in Chicago 13 years ago.

The network has won attention -- not to mention a $15.9 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- with statistics like these: a tiny 2.6 dropout rate for the 2006 graduating class and a 99 percent acceptance rate for its students into at least one college.

Its officers hope Newark's Christ the King can be a beacon in a city where public high schools have an approximately 60 percent dropout rate and where tuitions at other Catholic schools are considerably higher than the $2,500 family-paid tuition for Christ the King. The school is not run by the Archdiocese of Newark.

The business sponsors, collectively, will account for about 70 percent of the school's operating costs.

"It (the school) doesn't work without it," said Kevin Cuddihy, the principal. . "It enables kids and families to afford a private Catholic education which they otherwise would not be able to afford."

The students will learn any day now where their jobs are. School administrators surveyed them earlier this month and hope to match students with their preferences.

"That won't always be possible," said Sister Maureen Sullivan, the school's business manager. "One of them wanted to work for the CIA."

Jeff Diamant may be reached at jdiamant@starledger.com or (973) 392-1547.

© 2007 The Star Ledger