First generation poised to make history


PIONEER: Mauro Gutierrez Ruiz is a member of the first graduating class of Cristo Rey San Diego High School. He worked at Precision Diagnostics, a health laboratory in Sorrento Valley, as part of the school’s innovative “Corporate Work Study” program, which enables students to divide their time between college-prep classes and job sites. (Credit: Courtesy Cristo Rey San Diego High School)

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SAN DIEGO — Cristo Rey San Diego High School is making history once again.

The Catholic school, which exclusively serves low-income families and features an innovative work-study program, will be holding its first graduation ceremony in May.

Christian Kampfl, who has served as president of Cristo Rey San Diego since July, reflected on the significance of this moment.

He said that it is “a miracle in and of itself” that the school even exists, given that it opened at such an inauspicious time, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, in August of 2020.

Alfonso Magaña, who serves as head of school for academics and operations, has been on staff since the beginning. He said that this first graduation is an occasion not only to celebrate the graduating seniors, but also their families, who “took a chance.”

“They stuck with us,” Magaña said.

Of the 37 students who will receive their diplomas this year, 28 have been attending the school since freshman year.

Their trust has paid off.

Kampfl said that, as of April 4, some 95% of the graduating seniors had been accepted to four-year colleges and universities, including Gonzaga, Pepperdine, Villanova, the University of San Diego and the University of California, Los Angeles.

One of them is Mauro Gutierrez Ruiz.  He’s been accepted to Pomona College, where he plans to study Biology. He transferred as a junior to Cristo Rey because his parents wanted him not only to be prepared to attend college but also have real-world work experience.

In his first year, he worked at Precision Diagnostics, an advanced health laboratory in Sorrento Valley where he assisted in the analysis of samples. Then an opportunity came up to work over the summer at Immuneering Corp., a Rancho Bernardo biotech that researches new medicines to treat cancer. He applied and landed the position, which allowed him to learn lab techniques.

“It’s an experience not everyone gets,” the senior said. “I would not have gotten it if I was not at Cristo Rey.”

Claudio Moreno has attended the school since its opening. He, too, worked at Precision Diagnostics, joining the laboratory  in the second semester of his freshman year.

In his sophomore year, he worked at the Human Resources department of St. Paul’s Senior Services, where he provided office support. And the following year he worked at Ionis Pharmaceuticals, in Carlsbad, also mostly providing office support.

“There were so many networking opportunities,” he said. “I even met the CEO of this pretty big company.”

This year, he’s working at CBRE, which provides global real estate services.

He said his work experience has helped him to decide what career to pursue. He’s been accepted to UC Riverside, where he will study environmental engineering. “I can see myself doing that.”

Before arriving at Cristo Rey, he said that had been reluctant to try new things, didn’t want to be away from his friends or have to get up extra early to get to a location far away.

“The school experience has allowed me to get out of my comfort zone, and that was huge for me,” he said.

Another graduating senior, Iliana Hernandez Marina, plans to study biochemistry at either the University of San Diego and UC Davis. She plans to become a doctor.

“I think it’s important to understand every single aspect of healthcare, to actually understand what patients go through,” she said.

The organizations where she worked for in the course of her four years at the high school have given that understanding. She worked at the Red Cross, where she did a demographics project; Scripps Health, where did a project about depression and anxiety; Lindsay &  Brownell, a Certified Public Accounting firm; and Precision Diagnostics, where did lab work and, most recently, marketing.

She is one of the founding students of Cristo Rey. She recalled starting high school on-line because of Covid restrictions, then being able to return to school but having to wear masks and sit far apart, and finally being able to all be together in normal classes.

“It was complicated for us,” she said.

But the small group of students found a way to get to know each other, first online, and then in person, she said, and became a community.

“It was a lot of trust and communication that really got us through it.”

The last week of May will be a busy one for the Cristo Rey San Diego community.

Wednesday, May 29, will be College Signing Day, when the graduating seniors will reveal to the entire student body what college they will attend next year. Cardinal Robert W. McElroy will celebrate the baccalaureate Mass on Thursday, May 30, at the University of San Diego. Commencement will be the following day, also at USD.

Cristo Rey San Diego High School is one of 39 schools in the national Cristo Rey Network.

As with other network schools, admission is limited to low-income families, for whom Catholic secondary education would be otherwise out of reach.

Magaña said that the school’s families on average contribute about $600 annually toward their child’s education.

Much of the educational cost is paid through the school’s innovative “Corporate Work Study” program. Students attend classes four days a week and spend the remaining weekday at a professional workplace, where they gain invaluable employment experience.

It’s because of this corporate experience, Kampfl said, that so many of this year’s graduates are aspiring to some “pretty impressive” careers, such as being doctors, nurses and engineers.

Kampfl said students have demonstrated their worth as employees. He shared that Precision Diagnostics started out by accepting four Cristo Rey students, but it now has 24.

Additionally, he said, the company last year offered paid summer jobs to five students and will be offering twice as many this year.

Graduating senior Kassandra Sandoval had work-study assignments at the U.S.S. Midway Museum, Precision Diagnostics, Cristo Rey San Diego’s own marketing team, and Flores Financial Services, Inc.

“I feel like I have gotten more responsible and driven,” said Sandoval, who wants to be a teacher some day. “Cristo Rey has given me motivation to try hard at what I do and strive to go beyond the bare minimum for my grades and for my personal life.”

Her classmate, Diego Vargas-Ornelas, worked primarily at St. Paul’s Senior Services and Precision Diagnostics during his years at Cristo Rey San Diego.

At the former, he did what he described as “hands-on work,” like distributing lunches to the seniors, setting up for events, and helping out with activities. At the latter, he worked in the billing department, performing such duties as scanning and sorting documents.

“Cristo Rey’s work-study program has helped me get a better sense of the world out there and what is there to come for me,” said Vargas-Ornelas, who plans to attend John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido and pursue his dream of becoming a film director.
Cristo Rey San Diego is located on the campus of what formerly had been St. Jude Academy, the parochial school of St. Jude Shrine of the West that closed in 2011.

The school opened in 2020 with only a freshman class, but added a grade level each subsequent year. Today, there are 168 students – 37 seniors, 51 juniors, 39 sophomores and 41 freshmen.

The past four years have seen campus upgrades, made possible through the Shea Homes Foundation, as well as expanded offerings in classes, sports and clubs.

Like their counterparts at other network schools, Cristo Rey San Diego’s students must attend a “College and Career Readiness” class every year, beginning in ninth grade.

That class initially serves to equip them with the skills needed to be successful high school students, Magaña said. But eventually, it requires them to research colleges and to compile a list of those that meet their needs.

Magaña said the school’s college counseling team guides students and families through the entire process, including applying for financial aid.

“And it doesn’t end there,” he said, “because part of the Cristo Rey Network promise is not only graduating from high school and getting them into college, but also seeing them through college.”

He explained that a dedicated alumni advisor begins working with the students during their senior year and continues to assist them throughout their college years.

What does the future hold for Cristo Rey San Diego?

Kampfl said that the plan is to grow to 450 students within five years.

“We are super, super excited to see our students graduate this year,” said Magaña, “but we’re equally as excited in bringing in a new set of freshmen to our school.”

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