KANSAS CITY — The students at Cristo Rey Kansas City High School are eager to give a firm handshake. They'll stand up straight and look you right in the eye.
That's what they're taught to do.
And for the graduating seniors of Cristo Rey, that kind of discipline has helped earn each one of them acceptance into college, The Kansas City Star reported.
All 47 of this year's graduating class got into a college or university -- as did the classes from the two previous years.
Katherine Springston, an admissions counselor at Park University, said Cristo Rey's acceptance rate speaks for itself.
"They're clearly doing something right," Springston said.
Especially because many of Cristo Rey's graduates might not have been college-bound otherwise.
Among students who attend Cristo Rey, 24 percent of their parents didn't graduate high school, 45 percent don't speak English at home and 97 percent live below the poverty line.
Edna McCrary wanted to beat those odds.
She heard about Cristo Rey when she was in seventh grade, and she knew it was the place for her.
Cristo Rey had begun in 2001 in Chicago to help kids with economic needs get a Catholic college-prep education. A network of 26 schools eventually formed with the help of the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation. Cristo Rey Kansas City opened in 2006 on the corner of Linwood Boulevard and Broadway next to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish.
McCrary knew attending Cristo Rey would mean she would go to college. She wasn't sure how that was going to happen, but the high school staff reassured her.
"If I hadn't gone to Cristo Rey," McCrary said, "I don't think I would have gotten accepted."
She and her family live below the poverty line. Her mother, Hedy Davis, said McCrary would not have had the same opportunities or support to succeed if she had followed in her footsteps. Davis went to Central High School.
And the family likely would not have been able to afford the average cost of college, which according to The College Board is $17,860 a year for four-year public institutions.
And at William Jewell College, where McCrary will be a freshman this fall, the cost of tuition alone is $30,800.
But a $20,000 scholarship from the Horatio Alger Association and scholarships from William Jewell will certainly soften the blow. (This year's class received a collective $1.7 million in scholarships.)
It was Cristo Rey that helped the shy 17-year-old strengthen skills that were once weak and give her the confidence that her mother said she's surprised to see.
"I'd never heard of Cristo Rey," Davis said. "But she said, 'Mom, you'll really like it.'
"She knew what she wanted and went for it. ... I'm very proud of her."
Many Cristo Rey students and their families attended a college send-off event this week to celebrate their accomplishment and collect some of the dorm and school supplies that had been donated to the school by Garmin Industries, the Kansas City Plaza Rotary Club and volunteers from Christ Community Church.
The cost of attending the private school, about $11,000 a year, is offset by a student work-study program at businesses in the community, grants and fundraising. Parents are asked to put in $2,000, although most can't pay that much.
Cristo Rey officials said part of the high school's success comes because they are very selective when they choose students, and also because the school is so rigorous that some students wash out before their senior year.
"It's not a 100 percent fit for everyone," said Cristo Rey President Kathleen Hanlon. "Not every student that comes to us meets the academic requirements and stays with us.
"If you are not willing to work and be responsible, I can't have you here."
They don't play games at Cristo Rey -- the students don't have electives, and Hanlon said all the classes are academic. The school's focus is to get kids with economic needs into college.
"They saw a need and were willing to do something to meet that need," said Springston of Park University.
Springston said Park frequently reaches out to Cristo Rey students. And she said Park gets phone calls from teachers and counselors at Cristo Rey when they have questions about what a student might still need to get into college.
"It's that support, and students knowing that they have that support" that helps them succeed, she said.
For 18-year-old Brendan Derickson, money in the household was spread a little thin, being the oldest of five kids.
Derickson was home-schooled prior to attending Cristo Rey, but when it came time to send him off to high school, Cristo Rey seemed like a good fit.
Derickson said college was always a must for him. But had he not attended Cristo Rey, he said his options would have been slim.
"Mostly because of the lack of information," he said. "At Cristo Rey, there's a big push and a lot of help and general information about colleges."
Derickson, who will be a psychology major at Avila University in the fall, has scholarships from the university and the Cristo Rey Enrichment Organization.
Although Cristo Rey's 100 percent college acceptance rate is impressive, Hanlon said getting them there is not enough.
Two-thirds of the school's first graduating class in 2010 is still in school, Hanlon said, which she said compares to a national figure of 9 percent of the poorest students accepted to college who graduate, a statistic she had seen quoted in a magazine article.
"So we're doing something right," she said.