By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley had Notre Dame Cristo Rey High students laughing and thinking about faith, family and education last night at a Mass of celebration and thanksgiving at St. Mary of the Assumption Church for the 10th anniversary of the founding of the high school.
“It was a joy to celebrate Mass 10 years ago at the school and to be here today celebrating with a church filled with students and friends,” said O’Malley. “It’s so gratifying to see all that hard work has come to fruition.”
Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School was founded in 2004 under the leadership of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and in partnership with the Cristo Rey Network. The school offers students rigorous academics and work study programs.
“It was rich in energy, love and community,” Notre Dame Cristo Rey founder and president Sister Mary Murphy, said of the Mass. “To have the people from the parish come celebrate the mission of the school was wonderful and his (O’Malley’s) presence was quite a gift.”
Leslie Torres agreed.
“It was beautiful. I thought the music was fun and upbeat and he (O’Malley) caught my attention with his stories.”
Notre Dame Cristo Rey has 293 students of different ethnicities and religious faiths, from all over the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire.
Buddhist Cindy Nguyen and Muslim Fardowsa Abdulle, both juniors, said they felt at home during the Mass and at the school.
“I like how they’re focused on academics. It’s all about studying and they want you to succeed,” Abdulle said.
The school has a lot to be proud of, Murphy said. Earlier this month, the school was ranked No. 1 in workplace performance for the second year in a row by the Cristo Rey Network; and last year’s graduates received $5 million in scholarships for college tuition.
The school’s alumni over the past decade have all gone on to four‐year colleges. The college retention rate for alumni during their freshman to sophomore year in college is 94 percent.
“I just have great pride in our students and thank God for the opportunity we can provide them,” Murphy said. “I always believed the church should be in the inner city. Without us here, they would not have this opportunity.”
Murphy links the school’s success to its academics and corporate work study program. Students work one day a week at 70 different companies in and around the area. With the money they earn, students help pay for their education, giving their families a tuition rate of only 10 percent of what it costs to attend the school. Tuition at Notre Dame is $2,800.
“It broadens the experience of our students because they learn responsibility, time management and how to ask questions,” Murphy said of the corporate work study.
Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School is one of three religiously-based schools in Lawrence established to offer a better education for children of low-income immigrants — and all are seeing success. The others are Bellesini Academy, a Catholic all-boys middle school from fifth to eighth grade started 12 years ago and Esperanza Academy, an Episcopalian all-girls school founded eight years ago.
Bellesini Academy’s motto is “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty Through Education,” and Head of School Julie DiFilippo said that goal is being achieved.
“I see that every day, not just with our students, but with our parents,” she said.
Students at Bellesini have a 12-hour school day that includes academics, after-school activities and evening study. After school, the boys enjoy swimming lessons, instructional lacrosse and street hockey and chess, cooking, dance, debate and green team clubs. The school also has basketball, soccer and baseball teams.
“I think its been more successful than I ever thought,” DiFilippo said. “What makes our school successful is our partnership between the students, parents and faculty and staff members. Even though they came in the fifth grade, I tell the boys this is a 12-year relationship, because we follow them until they graduate from college.”
She is proud of the achievements of alumni. Every Bellesini student has been accepted to a private high school, and 84 percent are in college or have graduated. Another 6 percent joined the military.
Bellesini Academy has 58 students -- 92 percent Latino, 4 percent Vietnamese and 4 percent Caucasian.
At Esperanza Academy, Head of School Christopher Wilson said the school offers a well-rounded education that meets the academic, emotional and spiritual needs of the girls.
Esperanza Academy has 65 students in fifth to eighth grade. Most of the students, 96 percent, are Latina, with the rest coming from everywhere from the Congo to Cambodia.
“One exciting thing about our school is the international flavor and traditions (students) bring to the school,” Wilson said.
Esperanza Academy graduated its first class in 2009. Students went on to attend such prestigious schools as Kimball-Union Academy, Phillips Academy, Brooks School and Noble and Greenough. Wilson said 80 percent of Esperanza’s students go on to college.
“This is a testament to the way their journey began here at Esperanza,” Wilson said.