Work study program helps Cristo Rey students gear up for corporate world

Amber Castaneda and CRFW President Nathan Knuth. (Photo by Glen E. Ellman)

The first day of her first job was, as expected, routine. But soon nothing about Amber Castaneda, her job, or her work and educational experience would be routine.

Amber started her work life at a front desk answering phones and directing clients to meetings at Multatech, a Fort Worth-based architectural and engineering firm. She progressed with lightning speed.

“After the first few months managing the front desk, I rotated into the civil and architectural engineering departments where I edited preliminary plans and worked on AutoCAD updating projects. I loved every second of it,” Castaneda said.

But unlike most people working their first job, she was only a freshman in high school. Before long she would move on to other area companies and even more responsibility.

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By the time she graduated this past June, Castaneda had worked at several different Fort Worth companies and completed a long list of impressive assignments.

“My sophomore year, I went on to work at GDC Technics where I was placed in finance,” she said. “For my upperclassman years, I worked at GM Financial within the Dealer Services Department and worked in project management, credit systems, fraud, and reporting.”

How did she do all this?

Castaneda is one of the hundreds of students that participate in Cristo Rey Fort Worth (CRFW) high school’s innovative Corporate Work Study Program. Opened in 2018, Cristo Rey Fort Worth is part of a 38-school national network with an enrollment of more than 12,300 students.

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The first Cristo Rey high school started in Chicago in the working-class neighborhood of Pilsen in the fall of 1996 to help Mexican immigrant families who lacked quality, affordable educational options for their children. Knowing that their efforts would require substantial funding and realizing that the families and students needed to have a stake in the project, the founders adopted an unconventional model that required students to work five days each month in paid, entry-level professional jobs with their incomes going toward the school’s bottom line.

CRFW follows a similar model as that first Cristo Rey school. The school’s innovative work-study program combines four days of on-campus academic instruction with a day spent at a corporate job site where students earn a portion of their tuition while learning about a variety of professions.

But financial support is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of the work-study program. Nathan Knuth, who has been president of the school for almost two and a half years, credits the program and the school’s knowledgeable and experienced board of directors that helps guide it as being the key ingredients in the CRFW difference.

“Our students are able to quickly gain a four-year head start versus their peers on real world professional work experience during their years of high school,” Knuth said. “They grow in self-confidence, social skills, responsibility, accountability, and they create a robust network of social capital that will support them through the next phases of their college and professional careers.”

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The June 2022 inaugural graduating class had 48 seniors with a 100% acceptance rate to 48 different colleges and universities and more than $8 million in scholarships and grants. Those numbers far exceed the averages posted by schools in the Fort Worth Independent School District – and local leaders are taking notice of CRFW as a possible blueprint for the future of public education.

“We understand that the K-12 model, a traditional model, is really not working for our students,” said Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker. “Only 23% of our students in Tarrant County actually make it to a two-year or four-year credential. And if they are low-income students, it is 14%. But Cristo Rey kids are breaking those numbers.”

A total of 64 area companies have become corporate sponsors of CRFW’s work-study program and have opened their doors to more than 200 CRFW students. Besides Multatech, GDC Technics and GM Financial where Castaneda worked, other firms include Acme Brick, Alcon, Baylor Scott & White, Higginbotham, and Meador Auto Group.

Cristo Rey’s Corporate Work Study Program “helps establish a clearer vision for the student about what a corporate work environment is like and what’s possible in a company’s culture,” said Beverly Rouse, Senior Global Director of Employee Relations at Alcon.

For Higginbotham, an independent insurance company founded in 1948 and headquartered in Fort Worth, investing in the lives of future generations exemplifies one of the company’s core values.

“At Higginbotham, we have had the amazing opportunity to host returning students which allowed us the ability to invest in the lives of these young people year over year,” said Leah Scoggins, Director of Talent Operations. “We were able to experience these shy, uncertain,  kids [arrive] in their first year and, over the next four years, blossom into poised, confident young adults and professionals.”

For Castaneda, the program has opened her eyes to what the corporate world is really like and what it takes to get there.

“As a student, you have a real job starting at the age of 14,” she said. “It’s up to you to meet the basic expectations of completing your schoolwork and go above and beyond in the workplace. I think I understood very early on in my time at Cristo Rey that all the opportunities are available to me, but it was up to me to take advantage of that network, both in school and at my job.”

While juggling the demands of an intensive work study program along with extracurricular activities, volunteer work and family obligations wasn’t easy, Castaneda is looking forward to using the skills that she’s learned in the next chapter of her life.

“I come from a single-parent household. My mom didn’t get to finish middle school, but she always emphasized how important it was to get an education,” Castaneda said. “I always thought getting a degree was a dream since I knew I wanted to be part of the world of higher-level education, but I just had no guidance.

“Soon, I’ll be going to the University of Richmond to study business administration with a focus in marketing. To be able to say today I’m moving out of state with a full scholarship is an incredible privilege. I’m going to study what I have a passion for and when I come back to Fort Worth, I’ll have a degree in hand and say, ‘I did it!’”

Castaneda is just one example of how the CRFW’s work-study program has taught CRFW students to be their own advocates in school and in life.

“Compared to students of similar backgrounds at other schools, the difference is night and day,” said Christina Jimenez, Manager of College Initiatives. “The students I worked with at my previous high school struggled with speaking up for themselves, with taking initiative both in schoolwork and in life in general and had very few connections with professional people. To say that our Corporate Work Study Program is the cornerstone of our school is an understatement. It transforms our students into future professionals in positions of influence.”

The work-study program inspired Cristo Rey graduate Kaitlyn Garcia to change her college plans. She was placed in the engineering department at GM, first in Quality Engineering, then Controls Engineering and later in Mechanical Engineering. Coming into her freshman year, Kaitlyn thought she might like to study astrophysics in college, but the more she worked with hands-on problem solving at her corporate work-study job, the more she realized that she might be interested in studying engineering.

“Throughout her four-year internship she had weekly access to dozens of professional engineers working in various capacities,” explained Jimenez. “She was able to see firsthand what post-college work would look like. It was because of her work-study job experience that she was able to make an informed decision on her college major.”

Cristo Rey is a Catholic high school endorsed by the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, but not all of its students are Catholic. When the school’s 2022-23 academic year begins Aug. 15, it will welcome 225 students – 92.2% Catholic, 6.3% non-Catholic Christian, and 1% unspecified. Opportunities like the CRFW work-study program are few and far between, especially for low-income, first-generation students, no matter their religious affiliation. They realize that it’s the chance of a lifetime.

“I’ve been able to work at Baird Financial, a wealth management firm, since my freshman year,” said Kevin Gonzalez, who will graduate next year. “It allowed me to learn how the financial world works and grow my confidence.”

Jimena Arvizu, also a member of the class of 2023, has worked with several Fort Worth companies and has found her experience priceless.

“I worked with Byrne Construction my freshman year, Cooks Children my sophomore year, and Christ Haven and Alcon my junior year,” she said. “Being able to work with different people and professionals has helped me understand the importance of each individual job. I know how important teamwork is and how it contributes to the creation of new systems and operations.”

Cristo Rey students are taking bold steps to ensure their future success, and the same can be said for the school itself. CRFW recently received full accreditation for its program.

“Earning accreditation confirms CRFW’s commitment to educational excellence and continuous improvement,” Knuth said. “Accreditation guarantees through a third-party, recognized accrediting organization that a particular high school is teaching its students in alignment with nationally accepted levels and benchmarks.”

CRFW earned its accreditation through Cognia, a global nonprofit that serves 36,000 institutions with nearly 25 million students and five million educators in more than 80 countries every day.

The cost for one student for one year at CRFW is approximately $17,325, of which most families pay on average $1,200. The work study program currently generates $8,625 per student, leaving a gap of $7,500.

For information on how a company can become part of the program, contact Dani Ray Barton, Director of Corporate Work Study Program at 817.720.3023 x321or

Mark Fadden is a freelance writer and educator whose work has been featured in a variety of publications.