School choice graduate returns to his roots to open new high school in Miami

“The most rewarding part about being an educator is the opportunity to leave a lifelong impact on a person.  Whether it is showing someone how to divide, or tie a tie, or basic executive functioning skills, a student will always remember you for showing them.”  — Cesar Muñoz

(Lisa Buie | reimaginED) – When Miami’s new Cristo Rey High School opens in August 2022, inaugural principal Cesar Muñoz will bring more than just his experience as an educator. He’ll also bring the perspective forged by fond memories of being a student at one of the 38 high schools in the Cristo Rey network.

Founded in 1996, that network delivers a powerful and innovative approach to education that equips students from families of limited economic means with the knowledge, character, and skills to achieve their aspirations. It is the only network of high schools in the country that integrates four years of rigorous college preparatory academics with four years of professional work experience through a corporate work-study program.

Muñoz, who grew up in a dangerous section of Chicago, recalls how his experience helped him excel academically and prepared him to pursue his passion of being an educator, and he shares details of the upcoming opening of the new Miami school. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Please tell me a little about yourself and your education as a Cristo Rey student in Chicago. Why did your family choose Cristo Rey for you and how did they learn about the school?

A. Before we applied to Cristo Rey in 2003, I had no idea the school existed. My mom was worried about where I would attend high school because traditional Catholic school was too expensive, and the local public school was too dangerous. The mother of a peer who started with me in kindergarten told my mom about Cristo Rey, and it was the best advice my mother ever received. After my graduation, my sister and brother graduated, and my parents celebrated their 25th anniversary Mass in the Cristo Rey chapel. Cristo Rey Jesuit High School was truly a blessing for my family and me.

Q. How did your educational experience at Cristo Rey make a difference in your life?

A. My education at Cristo Rey Jesuit in Chicago was the foundation I needed for all aspects of my adult life. Cristo Rey prepared me for the rigors of college and helped me realize that an education would open any door I wanted. Currently, I am about 60% through a Ph.D. in educational leadership with a focus on Catholic school leadership.

It helped me develop a desire to succeed. Most importantly, Cristo Rey provided me the platform for finding my spirituality and faith. Through relationships built at Cristo Rey, retreat experiences, and service-learning opportunities, I developed a passion for helping others. I live every day trying to be a man for others.

Q. What were your work-study duties at national ad agency Leo Burnett USA, and what skills did the experience help you develop? Overall, how did the experience impact your career?

A. At Leo Burnett, I started working in the mailroom. During my freshman year, my duties were simple: sort mail, process shipments, and answer phones. During my sophomore and junior years, I was asked to fill in wherever necessary. On most days, I found myself delivering mail to offices. This is where I began to understand that I could become a CEO one day.

Having a basic conversation with C-level executives as I delivered their mail helped me gain the skill set of conversation in a professional setting, which led to my ability to do public speaking. During my senior year and first two years of college, I worked in the finance department. My duties included coding invoices and prepping them for payment. During this experience, I definitely gained the skill of being detail-oriented. Additionally, I was able to experience a vibrant culture.

I looked forward to going to work because it was high-tempo, and I had opportunities to see productions, mock-ups, and all different types of advertisement proofs before they were released. Overall, the experience gained at Leo Burnett gave me the knowledge and skill set necessary to continue progressing in my career every day.

Q. What influenced you to transition from advertising to education?

A. I always wanted to make a difference in the world. As a teen, I was upset that there wasn’t a local community center for me to spend time at. During my years at Leo Burnett, it seemed like the path was paved for me to work there for the rest of my life. Then there was a situation where gunshots were fired while my brother was outside playing. He was okay, but this had also been my experience as a 17-year-old senior.

The incident with my brother made me realize that I would not make the kind of difference I wanted if I were to continue pursuing a marketing career. I changed my major to sociology, with the mindset of being a social worker. As I continued through my junior and senior years of college, I began to work in an after-school tutoring program. This is where I realized the greatest impact I could make would be in the classroom because students are greatly influenced and motivated by their teachers.

Q. What is most rewarding about being an educator?

A. The most rewarding part about being an educator is the opportunity to leave a lifelong impact on a person. Whether it is showing someone how to divide, or tie a tie, or basic executive functioning skills, a student will always remember you for showing them. Therefore, everything I do as an educator is done with the utmost passion and pride.

Q. What led to the community’s decision to establish a Cristo Rey High School in Miami?

A. It has been a long time coming. The desire to establish a Cristo Rey High School in Miami stemmed from the need for a school like Cristo Rey to exist in a city with many under-resourced but hardworking people. Miami is a city of hardworking families who aspire to achieve the American Dream, and Cristo Rey Miami will be a steppingstone for these families. I can share my own experience as an example.

My parents could never afford to buy a home, and my wife and I bought a house for my parents before moving to Miami.  We will see many more cases like this in the next five to 10 years as a result of Cristo Rey Miami graduating college-ready and career-prepared students.

The process started in 2014 as a desire to replicate the model. In 2017, Cristo Rey Miami launched a feasibility study to truly understand the need for the school. In 2019, I moved to Miami to open a Cristo Rey school because of the impact it had on my life. I always say that I moved because of Cristo Rey, not for the opportunity to open a high school. Now, we are eight months away from opening. We have learned a lot through the pandemic, and we are excited and ready to finally welcome 108 families.

Q. Tell me more about the new Cristo Rey Miami High School. Are grades being phased in or is 9 through 12 coming in all at once? How many students will be served during the first year, and will that number expand if more grade levels are being added each year?

A. In the school year 2022-2023 we will welcome 108 ninth-grade students. Every year after we will add a ninth-grade class. In the school year 2023-2024, we will welcome an additional 108 students. During the 2024-2025 school year, we open the doors of our new 40,000-square-foot academic building, which will allow us to start welcoming incoming ninth-grade classes of 125 students. Our goal to be at full capacity is 450 students.

Q. Where will the new high school be located? What will the buildings and campus be like?

A. The campus will be at 125 NE 119th Street N in Miami. The facility is currently comprised of a church and a school building. Our plan is to develop the site into a 60,000-square-foot campus.

Q. Cristo Rey High is described as having a college preparatory program. How is this different from a regular Catholic high school? What are the college acceptance and graduation rates of Cristo Rey grads?

A. Cristo Rey Miami High School is a college and career preparatory high school that focuses on the academic, professional, and spiritual development of our scholars.  Our students will graduate college-ready and career prepared, with faith and purpose to become people for others and be leaders in their communities and beyond.

Academically, our main objective is to ensure our students graduate are college-ready. At Cristo Rey Miami, we will take an individualized approach to close any gaps our students may have. This process will begin in the summer prior to a student’s first school day at Cristo Rey Miami. All incoming students must participate in an intensive four-week academic tutoring and corporate work readiness training program. The purpose of the Summer Success Institute is to begin the process of developing the academic skills necessary to succeed in college preparatory courses and learn the techniques to be a successful corporate employee.

We do not consider ourselves different from other Catholic, college preparatory high schools. Rather we will aim to be up to par with the many outstanding Catholic, college preparatory high schools that already exist. What I believe does set us apart is that our students realize that the direct connection of their efforts in school will lead to a successful career, which is something that motivates many Cristo Rey students nationwide.

Q. How does Florida’s state school choice scholarship program play a role in helping cover the costs of education at Cristo Rey Miami School? Is any other fundraising needed to pay for the students’ education? If so, what form does that take?

A. The Florida School Choice Scholarship program plays a very important role in helping us provide this amazing opportunity to the most underserved communities of Miami. Due to our funding model, our families are left paying on average $75 per month. This includes absolutely everything – uniforms, transportation, breakfast, lunch, books, laptops, sports, and club fees. Depending on a family’s income, the monthly contribution will be from $25 to $150.

Q. Can families apply now, and if so, how?

A. Our application process is live. Families can apply in English, Spanish, or Kreyòl. Our application can be accessed by visiting our website or by directly accessing the application. The application process will only take 10 minutes, and our admissions team will guide families through the entire process.