Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School and the Power of Philanthropic Partnerships in Education

Philanthropy Roundtable’s Free to Give campaign elevates the voices of everyday Americans who have dedicated their careers to supporting those in need. Their work is made possible by the freedom of all Americans to give to the causes and communities they care about.

In the heart of Philadelphia, an inspirational partnership between private education, philanthropy and local businesses is providing a pathway to an exceptional high school education. Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School is a private Catholic college preparatory school for underserved students of all faiths. It’s entirely funded by philanthropists and business leaders who share the core values that every student deserves a quality education and the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

In a new Free to Give video that demonstrates why Americans should have the freedom to give to the causes and communities they care about most, Philanthropy Roundtable spoke with some of the administrators and donors who have been instrumental in making Cristo Rey a success.

“Cristo Rey is such a great example of the American genius for creativity and initiative. You know, it only works because there are private citizens and corporations and supporters who help out,” said Thomas Shoemaker, the school’s president and CEO. “It enriches everybody to be part of this incredible private charity.”   

In fact, these partnerships are critical to maintaining the quality of education and the campus at Cristo Rey, and ensuring that students can attend with minimal cost. The school, which has 518 current enrollees, boasts a 100% college acceptance rate. It also provides a weekly work-study program where students gain real experience by working at a sponsoring business one day a week.

The success of Cristo Rey is due, in large part, to donors like the Connelly Foundation, which has been a strategic partner of the school from the beginning, providing the funding for its building and many additional endeavors since. 

It was an investment that was personal for Connelly Foundation founder John Connelly, who was forced to drop out of school in the sixth grade, and grew up deeply aware of the educational opportunities he missed.

“That’s why he wanted to direct as much of his success as he could to helping similar kids, who might be in a similar situation, be able to get a good, quality education,” said Tom Riley, the foundation’s president.

“The people at Cristo Rey have … pushed me to go further than I’ve ever imagined,” said student Genesis Castro-Gomez. “The fact that I was able to be so advanced in these academic programs, I feel as though I’ve accomplished something in my life.”

“We only hear about the challenges that our public education system is facing, and it makes you feel like all is lost,” said Anuj Gupta, a former chief of staff for a Philadelphia-area U.S. congressman who joined the Roundtable for a tour of the school and spoke with students. “And then you come to a place like this, and you see the engagement of the teachers, you see the leadership potential of these students, you see what kind of facility they can go to school in … and you come away thinking everything’s not so bad after all.” 

Since nonprofits like Cristo Rey don’t accept any government funding, the support of philanthropists like Connelly is essential for their survival. Proposed regulations in Congress like the so-called ACE Act threaten to harm private charitable giving, and could have a detrimental impact on schools like this one.

“It would be very easy to, with the best of intentions, enact policies that wind up having a terrible effect on charitable giving. Congress should instead be focusing on policies that encourage more giving,” said Riley.

Despite the policy threats, the uniting message of Cristo Rey’s partnership model inspires ingenuity and casts a vision that can be recreated around the country. By cultivating young leaders like the students at Cristo Rey, philanthropists and businesses alike are advancing real opportunity and uplifting an entire community.

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