Logan: Q&A with Michael Gomez, Principal of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School

Michael Gomez is the principal of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, a private Catholic school established for students who come from low-income families and cannot afford the average private school. Now in its third year, Cristo Rey has 343 students, all of whom pay their tuition with the school’s unique system of funding.

What is the background of the student body?

We have 75 different grade schools represented, from various counties in the area. The student body is 55 percent African American, 30 percent Latino and the remaining 15 percent is mixed. The average income per family is $27,000.

How did the school open?

Cristo Rey was started in the mid ’90s by a Jesuit priest. … We are part of the Cristo Rey network and there are now 28 Cristo Rey schools in the country. John McConnell [the president of the Philadelphia school] wanted to start a school for students who cannot afford a good education. I was principal of St. Joe’s Prep [at the time] and my sixth year there I decided to open this school – as well as start my dissertation all at the same time.

How much is tuition and how is it funded?

Just to give you some context, St. Joe’s Prep costs $20,000 a year; Cristo Rey costs $12,000 a year, and $7,500 of that is paid for by students participating in the Work-Study Program. Parents pay anywhere between $20 and $200 and our donors pay the rest.

How does the Work-Study Program work?

Students work five days a month at corporate internships around Philadelphia. There are 70 companies involved in the program; they can work for … the mayor, various companies around the cities, nonprofit organizations, and many, many more. Students get paid $7,500 and that money goes directly into their own tuition. In fact, the Work-Study Program covers approximately 60 percent of each student’s education.

How does Cristo Rey differ from other high schools?

We try our best to fill in the gaps where students might be struggling. The way we teach is student-centered, not teacher-centered. The question is this: Who should be the star of the show? If the kids are mostly listening to the teacher, they are passively learning. With teacher-centered learning, the teacher is the center of attention and they choose how and what the students learn. We prefer student-centered learning, meaning the learning is focused on each student’s abilities and learning styles to better understand the [material.] We have students doing actual, hands-on work and the teachers provide for the students. I need them to think, to be articulate, by talking, by doing, not by simply listening.

What do you enjoy most about being principal of Cristo Rey?

Well, number one, I had the opportunity to start a school from scratch. I hired my entire faculty – smart, fun, caring people you could also go out with on a Friday night … people who just want to change the world. I got to create a culture for the school that I wanted. There is no whining, no complaining – we’re trying to change the world; there’s no time for that. Then there is the love and joy – the people here love each other and take care of each other. It’s fun to come to work. We love our kids; they’re precious and hardworking and come from tough neighborhoods. Cristo Rey is the first Catholic school opened in Philadelphia in 50 years. And it was opened in a neighborhood where murders happen – one happened just the other day, there were two murders in Logan last year. … We have a team here that helps the students get out of their neighborhoods and provides a good education to those kids who deserve it.

What are your greatest challenges as principal? 

The greatest challenge is what our students carry in their invisible backpacks. Our invisible backpacks are what we bring with us that no one else sees. Fourteen students have had a parent or immediate family member murdered. So [those students] carry hopelessness, doubt … we have students who have been abused, we have students who have been in jail. It’s challenging because we love them as people, but it’s in their minds and character. It weighs on us because we care about them so much and we can see it.

– Text and image by Nickee Plaksen