At Cristo Rey school in Dorchester, “Signing Day” is a twist on the usual high school celebration. Rather than announce where top athletes will play in college in the fall, Cristo Rey announces where its “scholastic superstars” are headed.
Hundreds of well-wishers gathered at the Catholic school one recent evening for the annual event. Yasmary Rondon and four other outstanding graduating seniors sat nervously before three hats, embroidered with the logos of their respective top college choices.
When her turn came, Rondon pulled on a Boston College hat, signaling her acceptance there.
“We got one!” said a happy Thomas P. O’Neill III, a BC alumnus, former lieutenant governor, and chairman of the Cristo Rey Boston board of trustees.
It is Cristo Rey’s intense focus on achievement that has earned the little school a big reputation.
The entire senior class, more than 60 students, expects to attend a four-year-college this fall. It marks the fifth straight year the school will have accomplished the feat, one it attributes to scrupulous academic standards and unique work-study partnerships with some of the region’s top businesses.
A holistic approach to education is key to propelling students from the two-story brick school near the Savin Hill MBTA station to some of the region’s top campuses, said president Jeff Thielman.
The challenges are great. Students typically arrive a grade and a half behind. About 84 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
But teachers work quickly to bring them up to speed, and the school amps up the rigor in grades 10, 11, and 12. Individual tutors, longer “double-block” classes in math and language arts, and advanced placement classes for all seniors add up to a culture of high standards.
“We have a different group of learners from 50 different feeder schools,” Thielman said. “Most of them come from very difficult family and financial backgrounds. Learning and education are not necessarily a priority in their homes.”
In addition to academic rigor, the work-study program gives students real-world experience and good work habits, along with new skills. Students work five days a month and offset the bulk of their tuition. Corporate partners include Hill Holliday, Novartis, and TJX.
In part-time jobs in health care, students might assist patients. At financial and legal firms, they deliver mail and aid researchers.
“The work experience broadens their minds,’’ said Thielman. “When they rub elbows with successful people all day long, they notice what it takes. It develops their resilience and grit.”
Only a few local schools rival Cristo Rey Boston’s record.
Cathedral High School in the South End, a peer Catholic institution, also boasts a 100-percent college acceptance rate. At the city’s top public high school, the much larger Boston Latin School, 94 percent of last year’s graduates planned to attend four-year colleges, according to state data.
Cristo Rey started as North Cambridge Catholic High School and joined the national Cristo Rey Network of 26 schools in 2004.
In 2010, it moved into the former St. William’s Elementary School to better serve Boston’s underprivileged, who were commuting as much as an hour each way to the Cambridge location.
Some neighborhood parents were said to be dismayed that the network’s policy of admitting only financially disadvantaged students meant their own children were ineligible. But Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who grew up and still lives in the neighborhood, was a strong supporter of the school as a state representative and helped to smooth tensions. He also spoke at the school’s opening.
“We ended up signing an agreement with the local parish,” Thielman said. “If anybody from the neighborhood applied and their parents made too much, we’d help them find another school.”
Cristo Rey has since integrated with the community, he said, lending its facilities for neighborhood events and serving as a polling station.
Signing Day is a crowning achievement for the school community. Rondon’s peers announced their college choices: One will be going to UMass Amherst, and the other three to Holy Cross, a popular destination for the students.
Some students acknowledged that the high expectations can lead some to transfer.
“They’re very strict,” Monica Rivera, a graduating senior who will attend Bridgewater State University, said of faculty and administrators. “You can be sent home for not [obeying] the dress code.”
“They’re not in your business, but they know you personally,” Jazmyn Grissett, a senior bound for Dean College, said with a smile. But the two friends agreed their experience at the school was overwhelmingly positive.
“Our class is like a family,” Grissett said. “No drama.”
At the Signing Day ceremony, on hand to salute the seniors were three employees of H.P. Hood who have worked with Cristo Rey students, including Yasmary Rondon, in the company’s quality control office in Charlestown and the corporate headquarters in Lynnfield.
“We’re very excited for Yasmary,” said Traci Tenggren, a senior human resources manager at Hood. “It’s so rewarding to coach a young person and teach them work and life skills.”
Some students had prepared their speeches in advance, but Rondon spoke off the cuff.
“I cannot thank the people I met here enough,” she said, pausing to gather herself as she suppressed a few tears with an embarrassed smile.
Afterward, she scurried through the crowd, still wearing her BC hat.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.