By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
Early on a November morning, Kenndrick Mendieta bounded from the gym at Cristo Rey Dallas College Prep toward the campus’ athletic fields as clouds lifted on a fresh new day.
The dew still dampened the bleacher seats as Mendieta snagged a pass and found a soccer teammate to get the ball rolling.
Everything stretched ahead of him and the other 125 freshmen in the school’s inaugural class.
Just about anything that Mendieta could imagine had moved from the realm of the fantastic to the truly possible in the first trimester of the new school’s life.
“This soccer practice gets me awake and ready for the school day,” he said with a fetching smile that had become familiar to all at the start-up school. “Now it’s on to my literature class and, later, I have a math test. I like math and science. When I grow up, I would really like to be a pediatrician.”
From a preemie born to loving, financially struggling parents to, potentially, a pediatrician’s career represented how much had happened to expand Mendieta’s dreams from the time his school opened on Aug. 14.
Cristo Rey Dallas, a non-profit and one of 30 schools in the Cristo Rey national network, launched in Pleasant Grove to serve families of limited economic means.
With four months in the books, the school had broadened horizons and long-term prospects far beyond the campus soccer field for Mendieta and his classmates.
“I want to go to Texas A&M University,” said Mendieta, the only child of Sonia Gutierrez, who works as a maid, and Martin Mendieta, a construction worker. “You work hard at Cristo Rey because you want to go to college.”
Mendieta, 14, spends every Tuesday and one Friday each month working at HFF, a commercial real estate financing company in downtown Dallas’ Victory Park.
Sonia and Martin, who grew up in Mexico and arrived in Dallas just more than 15 years ago, credit Cristo Rey as a difference-maker that has raised their family’s expectations.
Cristo Rey doesn’t stop with school days jam-packed with challenging course work and constant reinforcement of social skills; its bedrock is its network of corporate work-study partners who provide entry-level professional jobs to student teams.
The corporations help pay the Cristo Rey tuition for the student workers in the Southeast Dallas school.
“The average of our freshman class is at half of the federal poverty rate, or a family of five living on $35,000 a year,” said Kelby Woodard, Cristo Rey’s president and a former Minnesota state representative who focused on education. “Our students are exposed to a world through the work-study program that they would not have without Cristo Rey, whose students are graduating from four-year colleges at four times the rate of their peers.”
As the students learn to operate sophisticated banks of elevators in downtown Dallas skyscrapers, they get the hang of a white-collar world that generally eluded their parents and neighbors.
And as the freshmen learn to meet office deadlines and to mingle with experienced mentor-colleagues, the kids gain confidence and the motivation that fuels college goals, Woodard said.
“It’s been an amazing transformation,” said Woodard, whose school’s enrollment is predominantly Hispanic. “This freshman class is setting the culture. Kenndrick will come and shake my hand when he sees me in the hall. He has such a positive attitude.
“He’s helping us build a culture.”
Mendieta’s parents said that their son’s life now seems a far cry from his premature birth at Parkland Hospital.
“The people at Cristo Rey work so hard to make everything work,” Sonia said. “We get the sense that we can trust them. Kenndrick has learned so much at school and at his job.”
Sonia, 39, said that she and Martin, 45, worried about their new baby, who was born prematurely and seemed so vulnerable.
“I wasn’t sure if he was going to make it,” Sonia said, twisting her hands in her lap as she recalled her fear. “He was born at seven months and weighed four pounds. He was so tiny, and we didn’t have anything. We didn’t have clothes for him. We didn’t even have a car.”
A hopeful family
On a recent Saturday evening, Mendieta and his father praised Sonia’s cooking as she tried to downplay her culinary skills during family time in the tidy living room of their home, which is about a mile from Cristo Rey.
They laughed as they urged Sonia to take some credit for her splendid cooking, but she just smiled and waved off their compliments.
Sonia and Martin said that they always wanted their son to have a chance for a life with more options than they had.
A Catholic high school headed their wish list, but they never expected that one would open in their neighborhood just as their son was ready for ninth grade.
Sonia said that she and her husband and son learned about the launch of Cristo Rey after a Sunday Mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church, where they are parishioners.
“The parish always will be a home for me,” said Mendieta, who attended St. Augustine Catholic School before Cristo Rey—which now occupies the St. Augustine school’s buildings and grounds. “It has always been part of my life.”
St. Augustine Catholic School combined with St. Philip Catholic School to form a new academy, St. Philip & St. Augustine Catholic Academy, which opened in August.
Mendieta said that the remodeling that adapted his former elementary school to the needs of a high school made him feel the sense of starting on a fresh, new path.
“We really want Kenndrick to go to college,” said Sonia, whose job requires long hours and draining commutes. “Our parents didn’t have the money to send us to college. Life in Mexico was different. Kenndrick is always saving his money for college. He is learning responsibility and to be a real gentleman. He’s a good, responsible kid. Cristo Rey is a good environment for Kenndrick.”
Sonia and Martin met in their native Rioverde, San Luis Potosi, where they married before moving to San Francisco for a year. Mendieta was born not long after they moved into their modest house in Pleasant Grove. Martin said he felt blessed to get a construction job on a relative’s recommendation.
Mendieta said that his appreciation for his parents’ long, hard workdays motivates him to do well in school and to help out at home.
A living room wall features family portraits that radiate the love of the father, mother and son for each other.
Sonia said that Martin leaves for his job in homebuilding and remodeling by 6 a.m. daily and often returns well after 7 p.m.
But Martin’s boyish face looked refreshed and pleased as he sat on the sofa with his son.
Mendieta and Sonia helped convert some of Martin’s Spanish to English as he described his satisfaction with Cristo Rey.
“We think we have made the best decision,” he said. “My wife and I think that in the months that Kenndrick has been in the school, he has improved to the level of those in schools that are really recognized.”
Mendieta, who plays soccer at Cristo Rey, wore an El Tri jersey, reflecting the love he and his father share for Mexico’s national soccer team. One of their favorite pastimes is watching soccer on TV together, the father and the son said.
Sonia said that Mendieta also accompanies her to a nearby gym when they can grab some time away from work and school.
“He lifts weights while I do some running,” she said. “After Mass on Sunday, we like to have a family day at home, getting ready for Monday. We are often tired, but happy.
“We think we have a happy family.”
Full school schedule
From his brisk soccer workout on Nov. 13, Mendieta moved into an entirely different mode as his literature class began an earnest discussion of Elie Wiesel’s powerful memoir of the Holocaust, “Night.”
The students exchanged interpretations of the book’s imagery, character growth and themes in what literature teacher Timothy Woodward called a “Socratic Seminar.”
After opening the class with a prayer, the class discussed the concentration camps’ erosion of human dignity. Mendieta contributed remarks about survival in the light of lost privileges and the demoralization of those who had lost their loved ones.
The students arrived at an affirmation of faith and hope as a key message in “Night.”
Woodward praised the way the class had conducted the conversation, noting that not only the content mattered, but also the attention to speaking clearly and making points concisely.
“You want your voice to be heard at the table—when you’re in college and when you’re a professional,” he told the class before shaking hands with each student as the period ended.
“Kenndrick has grown a lot in confidence, in speaking in class and in putting forward ideas since school started,” Woodward said. “He works hard, pushes himself and is very friendly.
“He’s a model Cristo Rey student.”
From literature class, Mendieta moved on to the study of Newton’s Laws in his physics class before his theology lesson on Matthew 2 and Exodus 1.
Between classes, he kidded with friends in the hallway, his smile never shrinking in the least.
After lunch, Mendieta took a math test, went to a silent reading session, and took a vocabulary quiz in his composition class.
The campus had a settled air about it, though not everything happened at once in its watershed year.
Not until November did the school raise the money for uniforms for the sports teams, nicknamed The Fire.
Woodard said that the students offered input as the first autumn played out.
“The kids didn’t object to the homework load or the rigorous academics, but they did complain about the lunches,” Woodard said with a laugh. “We had student representatives taste food from a variety of caterers, and we chose a new one. The students helped us resolve it, and felt like they had a say.”
Woodard said that Cristo Rey seeks students who might not excel at some of the established Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Dallas.
“We were an opportunity for another set of kids to get a Catholic prep school education,” he said. “Because of our work-study program, our students see the results of other people’s work, and they see where they can go.”
Real work world
Anyone observing Kenndrick Mendieta on the bus taking him to his first day of work in mid-August would have noticed that he held his sack lunch on his lap with hands so precise that he might have been praying.
That would not have been a stretch; his family prays together nightly, among other times.
And, on this day, he was going where no one in his family had ever gone.
Even for those who long have lived in Dallas and navigated its sunbelt-sparkling-city business districts, something about arriving at Victory Park in downtown early on a Tuesday sparked the thought that it was well-named.
Victory Park seemed a place where people win, or at least thrive, in their endeavors.
Was that what Mendieta was thinking on that 50-minute bus ride to his job at HFF, a commercial real estate financing company in Victory Park?
When he walked into the HFF building, where the revolving door swallowed him as he looked intense and determined, at 8:38 a.m. on Aug.11, the answer was…
“What I was thinking was that I was like the most nervous person in the world,” he said. “When I stepped off that bus, I was thinking that it was a nervous and exciting time. I was thinking, ‘Oh, what are they going to think of me? Are they going to like me? I was, Wow, are they going to like me?’ ”
Three months later, on a sunny morning, Mendieta’s supervisor, Stephanie Messock, the Human Resources Coordinator for HFF’s Recruiting division, said that Mendieta inspired everyone in her office.
“He gets instruction from everybody,” she said. “We have a wide variety of projects that Kenndrick works on. He’s been crucial in keeping a running tally. He’s efficient and a quick worker. He doesn’t seem really intimidated. I know that when I was Kenndrick’s age, I was super-shy.”
The 20-story building gave Mendieta a view from his work cubicle of Dallas freeways going in different directions.
Once you have an opportunity of substance, you can see a two-way street and make a choice about which direction you want to take, Woodard said.
But Mendieta, in his navy blazer, gray slacks and striped tie, already got that part.
It was what his parents said that registered with him as he settled into his life at a new Catholic prep school.
“I have to be organized,” he said. “I like being organized. I’ve learned so much from helpful, really nice people. It’s pretty cool and exciting.
“It’s a new day.”