OAKLAND — Where St. Elizabeth High School once stood for almost a century in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, a renovated school has arisen with a new spirit, a new mission and even a new name: Cristo Rey De La Salle.
It’s a school where students are expected to earn their subsidized tuition by working one day a week at a local company that foots a good chunk of the bill.
And it’s touted as the country’s first Catholic high school to implement a “summit learning” platform that uses data to track students’ progress and show teachers where improvements are needed. The system was created by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a company started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
The new Fruitvale school, which opened Wednesday to an inaugural freshman class of 69 students, is the 35th in the “Cristo Rey” network of urban high schools throughout the country that only enroll low-income students. San Jose has one, as does San Francisco and Sacramento.
“We are investing in this neighborhood, in these young people and families, in this incredible place, this building, because this neighborhood deserves it, and these young people deserve it,” Michael Anderer, Cristo Rey De La Salle’s president, said at the school’s ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday.
The school’s new principal, Ana Hernandez, was just as fired up.
“I’m from Oakland, I was raised in Oakland, I went to Oakland public schools, so to be able to come back here was definitely a gift,” she said.
For more than a year, there was no school to return to. St. Elizabeth closed for good in the summer of 2017 after years of steadily declining enrollment that saw the number of students drop from 371 in 1990 to 143 at the end.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland attributed the drop to an influx of new families in the neighborhood who weren’t as affiliated with the church and to a tuition bill that was just too far out of reach for most families. On average, families paid about $4,400 a year — about a third of the tuition — after receiving financial aid.
St. Elizabeth wasn’t alone in its struggle. About half of the country’s Catholic schools closed from 1960 to 2017, according to a study released last month by Education Next, a journal of Harvard University. Although Catholic schools typically aim to serve middle- and low-income families, their closures resulted in significantly fewer options for such families, the study’s authors found.
Cristo Rey De La Salle’s mission is to exclusively serve low-income students, whose parents will pay $250 to $2,500 a year depending on their circumstances.
Annual tuition at the new school at 1530 34th Ave. is about about $18,000, and students will be expected to pay off at least a fraction of the bill through their labor. The school runs a work-study program that has all students working once a week at a partnering company, which in turn foots about half of the tuition, said school spokeswoman Caitie Nolan. The rest of the tuition is mostly covered through scholarships.
On average, parents will pay about $1,000 a year per student, Nolan said.
To enroll their children, families must make less than 75 percent of the annual area median income. For a family of four in the East Bay, that’s about $75,000, Nolan said. Most of the students at the school come from families whose annual income is less than 35 percent of the area median — about $26,250.
Sixty-nine students are enrolled in the inaugural freshman class — the school’s only class this year, Nolan said. The school will add new classes in succeeding years; it currently has five teachers.
Hernandez, who previously was the principal of Saint Clement Catholic School in Hayward, said educators looked at other schools that served similar student demographics and determined this model would be most successful.
“I truly believe a good education isn’t about the instructional minutes, it’s about the quality of learning and how deep students are able to learn and dive into the different subject areas,” she (Hernandez) said in an interview. “What good is it to learn facts if you don’t know how to apply them?”
About 90 percent of graduating students from other schools in the Cristo Rey network enroll in college, according to its website. That’s about 1.4 times more than low-income graduates of other high schools, the website said. About 35 percent of Cristo Rey graduates complete bachelor’s degrees in college.
The student-to-teacher ratio at Cristo Rey De La Salle is about 10:1, Hernandez said.
Though Cristo Rey De La Salle is keeping some of the St. Elizabeth’s murals and decorations, the two are not connected, according to a school news release. The school also will keep the Mustang mascot.
The building was renovated and repainted and given an array of technology upgrades.
Yuliana Morales, of Piedmont, said her daughter chose to go to Cristo Rey De La Salle because of the work-study program. She wants to be either a math professor or a business leader when she grows up, and will be doing her work-study program with the California Bank of Commerce.
“She’s excited for the fact that she’s going to have job experience that she can use in the future,” Morales said.
Some other companies participating in the program include Blue Shield of California, Deloitte consulting, Heffernan Insurance Brokers, Kaiser Permanente, Chevron, One Toyota of Oakland and Saint Mary’s College of California.
The school’s staff and parent volunteers will drop students off and pick them up from their work-study shifts. The students will work one shift a week and two shifts a week once a month.
Hernandez said the school’s structure will allow struggling students and those “who feel school is not for them” to strive.
“We’re giving those students a chance to prove themselves to the world,” Hernandez said.