Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

In the heart of Catholic Schools Week, the Diocese of Richmond learned it is getting another Catholic school. Come August 2019, Richmond will open Cristo Rey High School — the 36th in the Cristo Rey Network and the first in the diocese since St. John Neumann Academy, Blacksburg, opened in 2003.

Along with that announcement, made Tuesday night, Jan. 30, during a reception at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Alexa Quinn, chair of the committee that undertook the 2016 feasibility study for a Cristo Rey High School in Richmond, announced that, following a nationwide search, Peter J. McCourt had been hired as the school’s first president, effective Jan. 15.

McCourt, a member of St. Mary Parish, Richmond, had worked 11 years for Bon Secours Richmond Health System, where he served in various leadership roles within the Mission Services Division. Most recently, he served as the vice president for mission of the Bon Secours Virginia Medical Group.

McCourt holds a master’s degree in theology from the Washington Theological Union, and has completed post-graduate studies in theology and in leadership at the University of Notre Dame.

In a press release from Cristo Rey (“Christ the King”), Quinn said, “His passion for working with the underserved and his record of success at Bon Secours will serve him well as he prepares to assume this critically important role.”

Support from bishops

In his remarks to the gathering. McCourt acknowledged the “Herculean effort” by the feasibility study committee, noting that Cristo Rey had reached its first fundraising goal of $2.5 million. It will need to raise another $2.5 million prior to the school’s opening in August 2019.

McCourt, a candidate for the permanent diaconate, expressed gratitude to the Diocese of Richmond for its support, calling the late Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo an “inspiration” during the process.

“He said, ‘I think this Cristo Rey thing would be good. Let’s figure out how to do this,’” McCourt said.

When the committee was looking at potential sites for the school on the East End and South Side of Richmond, it was, according to McCourt, Bishop DiLorenzo who said, “Why not look at the old Benedictine High School?”

Benedictine had occupied the site at 304 N. Sheppard St. from 1911 until 2013, when it moved to its current campus on River Road in Goochland County. Richmond Prep, a Christian school, is currently leasing two floors of the building from the diocese. They will remain there until June 2019.

On Jan. 1 of this year, Cristo Rey began leasing 10,000 square feet of the building where the high school’s administrative offices are already located.

McCourt said Bishop Barry C. Knestout “gave us two or three thumbs up and said, ‘Go for it.’”

The bishop is familiar with the work of the Cristo Rey Network as one of its high schools, Don Bosco, is located in Takoma Park, Maryland, in the Archdiocese of Washington — the archdiocese in which he served as a priest and auxiliary bishop.

Growth of a network

The first Cristo Rey high school opened in Chicago in 1996; the Cristo Rey Network, consisting of four schools at the time, was established in 2003. Since then, it has opened at least one high school every year, except 2005 and 2010. Only one school, St. Peter Claver in Omaha, Nebraska, part of the Cristo Rey Network from 2007 to 2011, has closed.

“The school was closed by the Archdiocese of Omaha due to performance and financial concerns,” according to Alyse Faour, advancement associate for the Cristo Rey Network.

As of 2017, the network consisted of 32 high schools with an enrollment of 11,600 students, 97 percent were minorities and from homes with an average family-of-four income of $35,000. More than 13,000 students have graduated from a Cristo Rey High School.

Work study key component

Much of the success Cristo Rey students achieve — 100 percent college acceptance; 90 percent college enrollment — is due, in large part, to the network’s Corporate Work Study Program. Each school uses a network-established model in which a team of four students shares an entry-level position at one of the sponsoring businesses. Each student works one day a week at the job and spends the other four days in class.

According to Katie Yohe, Director of Administration for Cristo Rey Richmond, once the school is fully matriculated, the annual average cost for a student’s education will be $13,500. Of that amount, 50 percent will come from the student’s Corporate Work Study place; 40 percent from “traditional fundraising”; and 10 percent from the student’s family.

“All families are expected to contribute to the student’s education,” she said. “The dollar amount is based on a sliding scale based on income level and size of family.”

This summer, Cristo Rey Richmond will hire a director of student recruitment. Yohe expects the school’s inaugural class will have 100-125 students. Another class will be added each year.

“To recruit, we will directly collaborate with existing public and private schools, service providers, community centers, churches, and other community organizations,” she said. “In addition, we will meet with students, parents, and community leaders to explore enrollment.”

As McCourt settles into his position, he does so with optimism.

“We believe this opportunity is going to change lives and transform the community,” he said.