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New president at Cristo Rey deals with COVID challenges

🕐 5 min read

Cristo Rey Fort Worth College Prep

2633 Altamesa Blvd.

Fort Worth 76133

817.720.3023.

www.cristoreyfortworth.org

 

COVID-19 has been a challenge for education, but none more than a school that focuses on sending students into work study environments. Here’s how Cristo Rey Fort Worth responded.

SHILO URBAN

FWBP Contributor

The first day at a new job always has an element of the unexpected. But nothing could prepare Nathan Knuth for his first day as the President of Cristo Rey Fort Worth College Prep.

The school offers students from low-income communities a college preparatory education as well as a unique Corporate Work Study Program with local business partners. Students work one full day each week at an entry-level job, paying for a portion of their tuition while earning invaluable experience in the corporate world.

Nathan Knuth courtesy

The school opened in July 2018 to its founding freshman class of 75 students and moved to its larger campus in 2019 to accommodate its growth. Cristo Rey Fort Worth now has about 170 students and has more than 40 corporate partners.

Knuth took the helm of the Cristo Rey on Monday, March 16, 2020, just three days after COVID-19 was declared a national emergency. Knuth previously served as Principal HR Business Partner and site lead for Paycor Inc. at the company’s Tech Hub located in Frisco, for their product development and technology division.

The final act of the outgoing president had been to shut the campus down, so Knuth began his first day of school at home, working virtually with no students in sight. The pandemic may have upended his expectations for the school year, but it has only strengthened his passion for empowering students.

What was it like to shift to a virtual environment at Cristo Rey?

It was a very challenging time. I never expected in my wildest dreams that coming back into education I would have to get to know everybody virtually, manage the school virtually, hire people virtually, do everything virtually.

Within 48 hours we pivoted to 100% digital platform and students were back online. It was an adjustment for the first two weeks, but our students were very resilient in responding and being responsible, despite all of the difficulties that they were facing personally in their own households.

How has the Corporate Work Study Program adapted to the unique challenges that Covid-19 presents?

It’s forced us to be very creative and very flexible in the way we approach our partners. We’ve offered our partners a bunch of different options on start dates and payment. We can have the students work remotely for them if that’s something that they’re able to facilitate.

In some cases, the students do remote work on their laptops here on campus, socially distanced and supervised by one of our staff members. For those students who don’t have a job placement yet in these initial weeks or months, we’re working on developing professional skills training for them and different software certifications.

We’re also developing a partnership with Catholic Charities Fort Worth to offer the possibility for some students to be trained and certified as interpreters.

Why is this program so important for the Fort Worth area in particular?

Tarrant County is struggling right now with the skills gap. We have so many kids that graduate from high school every year, but so few of them go off to college. And at the same time, 60-65% of open jobs in Tarrant County at any given moment require a post-secondary degree. We’re not really growing our own talent to the level that our local economy needs for the jobs that are in the pipeline.

So I really look at [Cristo Rey’s] model as essential. We’re really focused on workplace readiness, and we’re really trying to do our part to help the community in offering that training of the future workforce that Tarrant County and Fort Worth so desperately need.

We’re in this for the long-term. We’re not going anywhere, our kids aren’t going anywhere, and their problems aren’t going anywhere. We want to form and foster lasting partnerships that will get us through thick or thin.

What is the most challenging part of your new position?

The biggest challenge is also the biggest motivating piece: How do we come up with sustainable approaches to build community and build supporters in the local community that will make this model work for the long term? Because we are truly engaged in something that is needed.

It’s very clear that we need young people to get to college. We need them to be successful. We need them if possible to come back to their hometown and be the future business leaders of their community.

I believe if we foster those relationships now from ninth grade on, we have a lot better chance of achieving those goals. And we do that by getting the donors and the supporters that can help make this model sustainable, by getting enough partners to cover what we call the “jobs gap” to make sure that all of our students have a chance to have that corporate work experience.

What would you say to corporate business leaders who are thinking about getting involved?

It’s never been easier to become a corporate partner of Cristo Rey Fort Worth because we’re offering so many flexible options right now. The world won’t become a better place if we just think about it. It will only become a better place when you and I do something about it.

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