Seven-thirty on a December Thursday morning at Verbum Dei High School in the heart of Watts, not far from two government housing projects, Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens. Cristina Cuellar-Villanueva, 30, is at a podium taking roll call by first names. But the 75 boys — mostly seniors with a sprinkling of freshmen, who make up one-quarter of the student body — are not in her homeroom, and they’re definitely not headed to class. Instead, the students, dressed in jackets or sweaters over white shirts and black ties and dark slacks, are off to work as part of the Jesuit-run school’s innovative Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP), which began ten years ago in the 2002-2003 academic year.When the morning prayer comes crackling over the intercom, the boys dutifully stand up, but many keep their heads down. And a few are studying pink sheets with a litany of “p” job tips — “prompt, participate, polite, prepared, productive, positive” — or the graphic time breakdown of their coming workday. “If you have not seen your performance review, that’s a problem,” declares Cuellar-Villanueva, trying to look stern. “OK? I recommend that you go to work today and you ask your supervisor if they will please take a moment or two to review that performance evaluation with you. How else would you know how well you’re doing, or the areas that you need to improve on?” After a pause, she asks, “Any questions about the reviews?”One brave boy raises his hand to ask the ultimate student query: “What percentage of our grade depends on the evaluations?”“Fifty percent,” she answers.Another boy exclaims, “Wow!” At 7:45 a.m., Cuellar-Villanueva directs the first group of students into a waiting van outside a side door. And then a second group. The teenagers left in the room, who have been stone quiet up to this point, are now rambunctiously jabbering away like dock workers in a union hall. Finally a white tour bus with tinted windows drives up and 38 students climb into it, including senior Ricardo Placensia. The 17-year-old finds a seat near the front. Learning life lessons“I literally live one block away from Verb, but I never noticed it,” Ricardo admits with a half-smile as the big bus pulls away for downtown Los Angeles. “But at the end of my eighth grade in public school, my mom noticed it. And she knew that a private school was better than the public high schools around here.”After he and his twin brother, Robert, were accepted with financial aid, they — like every incoming student at Verbum Dei — first attended the mandatory school program “Summer Opportunity of Academic Readiness.” And it was at SOAR that Ricardo learned about the Corporate Work Study Program.In 1996, the first of its kind U.S. educational effort was started by a former Jesuit missionary in Peru on Chicago’s Lower West Side to provide an affordable quality, Catholic, college-prep education in a working class Hispanic neighborhood. Today, the so-called Cristo Rey Network has spread to more than 20 Jesuit high schools serving some 6,000 low-income minority students in cities like New York, Portland, Detroit and L.A., home of Verbum Dei (“the Word of God”) High School, founded in 1962 by the Society of the Divine Word to serve the African-American community in South Los Angeles. In 2000, Cardinal Roger Mahony asked the California Province of the Society of Jesus to take over administration of the school. CWSP began two years later.At Verbum Dei, companies contract with CWSP for full-time, entry-level clerical jobs. Four-member teams of students work five days a month, interning at accounting, banking, education, law and other firms. These corporate partners pay $28,000 for each team, which amounts to $7,000 toward the cost of a student’s yearly tuition.Since his sophomore year, Ricardo has been employed at Locke Lord LLP, an international civil law firm, with a branch office in a California Plaza high-rise. He works out of the 26th-floor copy room, dealing mainly with legal secretaries whose lawyers need documents photo copied, faxed, scanned or mailed. He also does filing and whatever other clerical tasks come up during the day.“It’s been good,” he says. “It’s been like a new experience. I’ve never worked in an actual law firm. So I was kind of nervous at first, you know, with everybody. But it’s been good. I’ve learned a lot of new things. I expected the people to be, like, strict and not like regular people, but they’re pretty nice. And I guess they appreciate my help. I’ve noticed that.”The two-and-a-half-year experience at Locke Lord has also helped Ricardo realize that a career in business, even maybe as a lawyer, is not beyond his reach as long as he works hard at his studies and goes to college. The teenager has already applied to a number of University of California and Cal State University campuses, which would make him the first in his family, along with his twin, to go to college. “I guess that’s the biggest life lesson I’ve learned, along with being to work on time, following directions and time management. So it’s been great.” The law firm’s Los Angeles office administrator, Marilyn Yruegaz, could not agree more. “The boys from Verb have been wonderful,” she says. “We have not had one kid who I would say wasn’t good. And we’ve had some really, really great kids work here like Ricardo. It gives them an opportunity to see how the corporate world works, and it benefits us. When they’re here, it’s like having another employee.”And then there are the life lessons.“I certainly hope that Ricardo and the others are learning some lessons that will help them later in life,” Yruegaz notes. “You can see it as they grow older with us here how they get better at communicating with our workers. And it gives them options on what they want to do. Gives them goals, I’m sure.” ‘A full work day’Since 9 a.m., Ricardo has been diligently making hourly rounds of Locke Lord’s 26th and 27th floors. He’s also helped set up soft drinks at one end of a polished conference table that seems to stretch 50 yards. But on this round, he just picks up a package to be delivered to another legal secretary. “Some days are busier than others,” he reports with a shrug, glancing down at his near empty two-tiered cart. Then he talks about a day when a lawyer really needed two boxes of briefs to be copied for the next morning, but his secretary waited until a hour before the copy room closed. So he and three other workers divided up the job and got it done on time.At 4:30 p.m., he catches the same tour bus and gets back to Verb by 5:30. “It’s a full work day,” Cristina Cuellar-Villanueva reports. The graduate of Loyola Marymount University with a master’s degree in Catholic Schools Administration has worked at Verb’s Corporate Work Study Program for nine years, directing it for eight.“This program is great because of the opportunities that it gives students,” she says, sitting in her campus office. “It gives them an opportunity to be in an academic setting and yet experience a real-world job setting and get this experience first-hand. And students learn what it is to have a strong work ethic and learn what it is to take initiative and be a responsible adult.“And learn to interact in an adult environment,” she adds. “Our kids are the only teenagers in this all-adult environment. So how do you cope with the difference? You’re a teenager, they’re adults. But most of our kids do a wonderful job of adjusting and acclimating.” Still, Cuellar-Villanueva says Verbum Dei High School — which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — is not for everybody. “Cream of the crop” students would do better at some elite private school, because Verb is focused on serving the underserved in Watts and surrounding poverty communities. Incoming students often have sixth- or seventh-grade reading and math levels. So teachers have to help them “get up to speed” in time to graduate and be accepted into college. That’s no easy task, she points out. But recent graduates have gone on to USC and UCLA, Stanford and Georgetown. And one student is graduating from Yale this year. Virtually all get accepted to four- or two-year colleges. She believes the Corporate Work Study Program is part of the package — that strives to have a loving, nurturing environment where teachers know the names of their students, along with a rigorous academic curriculum and an educational philosophy of meeting the students “where they are” — which makes student success possible. “The Cristo Rey Network motto is “changing one urban student at a time,” Cuellar-Villanueva informs. “And that really is what we’re about. It’s Verbum Dei’s charism. And the work-study program is a big part of that.”Jesuit Father William Muller, president of Verbum Dei, says Verb would not have survived without the Corporate Work Study Program, because most of its school families can only afford to pay less than half of the $2,700 annual tuition. That amount doesn’t come close to meeting the actual $14,000-plus it costs per student to operate the high school at 11100 South Central Avenue. The result is he has to fundraise $2.2 million every year. But it would be twice that without the intern salaries coming in from corporate partners. In the next few years, he hopes to raise enrollment from 300 to 400, and increase the number work-study jobs accordingly.Plans call for Verb, in fact, to becoming a total “scholarship school,” where the only charges will be necessary fees. “Our mission is to serve the poor,” explains Father Muller. “And I think being a scholarship school will force us to live exactly to our mission. We’re only going to take kids who couldn’t afford Catholic college prep education elsewhere.”To find out more about Verbum Dei High School and its Corporate Work Study Program, call Father William Muller or Cristina-Cuellar-Villanueva at (323) 564-6651.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/1221/workstudy/{/gallery}