"The School that Works" sits quietly in a red brick building on 106th Street and Park Avenue in East Harlem, N.Y. At 8 a.m. on Sept. 10, high school students gabbed, jumped and joked their way through the open doors of Cristo Rey New York High School. It was the first chilly morning of the year. It was sharpened pencil weather, new backpack weather.

Inside the cafeteria that held the morning assembly, about 55 freshmen sat at rows of tables, girls on the left side of the room, boys on the right side. It was the first morning of the first day of high school, and although there was a palpable energy in the room, there was no whispering or chatting. The students sat at the tables with rapt attention, listening to the man in the black suit and red power tie pacing in front of them and barking out instructions.

"How many of you don't know your geography? How many of you don't know where I mean when I say `Grand Central' or `Wall Street' or `Times Square'? It's OK if you don't."

A few students raised tentative hands, then more, then more. About one-fifth of the kids in the cafeteria did not know exactly where he meant.

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Brian Heese spent 20 years on Wall Street, 12 of them as the director of debt capital markets at Merrill Lynch. His mannerisms were boardroom, not lunchroom; but there he was, in a cafeteria full of low-income, scared, 14-year-olds in East Harlem, making sure they had the cellphone numbers of the staff in case they got lost.

The first day of school for these freshmen would not take place learning each other's names and reading syllabi in the classrooms; instead, they would take place working in the back offices and lobbies of some of the most profitable and powerful corporations in the world, introducing themselves with the firm handshakes and steady eye contact they had been taught that summer.

Cristo Rey New York High School is one of a network of 24 Catholic schools located in some of the most disadvantaged areas of some of the country's largest cities. The schools' goal is to provide low-cost, quality education to promising students who would otherwise be stuck in failing, dilapidated public schools. To make the tuition affordable, students are asked to work one day per week in corporate jobs, putting the money they make toward the school.

Mark DeWaele, of New Canaan, has played a key role in helping the school, from its early days until now. He explained what the professional environment can mean for the students.

"The Corporate Work Study Program gives students a real-life application from the learning they do in classroom. It's exciting for students to take a day each week and go out into real corporate world and interface with adults, who hopefully will eventually someday be their coworkers. I think it's a phenomenal experience for these kids."

DeWaele, the Republican chairman of the Town Council and a dentist with his own practice on South Avenue, served two three-year terms on the board of trustees, from 2005 to 2011.

He is now a trustee emeritus, and remains active as a liaison between the corporate world and the school.

"Through my practice I've leveraged relationships to let people understand the opportunities for their companies with these students. Most people are excited for the opportunity to employ kids. New Canaan is a treasure trove of corporate representation."

DeWaele said his work with Cristo Rey has made him feel good.

"The opportunity that I was given to be part of the mission of CRNYS from its nascence has been the most fulfilling philanthropic endeavor in my life."

Lauren Decker, Cristo Rey's director of strategic partnerships, explained how the Corporate Work Study Program works.

"Basically the program works like a temp agency within a school," she said.

The CWSP succeeds in keeping tuition at only $2,000 per year. Other Harlem and uptown Catholic schools cost four or five times as much. St. Jean Baptiste High School, on East 76th Street, costs $7,650 per year with tuition and fees. St. Vincent Ferrer High School, on East 65th Street, costs $8,400 with tuition and fees. Horace Mann High School, in the Bronx, costs $39,925 per year including fees. And Cristo Rey has been able to keep tuition unchanged since its inception in 2004.

"Whereas other private schools raise tuition, we raise the job fees," said the president of the school, Father Joseph Parkes.

The system works not only as a funding source, which comprises about 38 percent of the school's revenue, but also as a way for students who would never have otherwise been exposed to the professional world to report once a week to companies like Deutsche Bank and Brown Brothers Harriman. Four and a half times more revenue is raised by the CWSP than by tuition, meaning that tuition would be about $9,000 in the absence of the program.

It is a source of pride that, traditionally, 100 percent of the students that make it through Cristo Rey High School go on to college, many of which are highly selective. A rundown of the class of 2012 shows graduates enrolling in: Georgetown; Amherst; Colgate; Smith; Villanova; Franklin and Marshall; and Fordham.

Seventy three percent of students enrolled in colleges ranked "most selective" "more selective" or "selective" by U.S. News and World Report.

Father Parkes explained how the CWSP is integral in the education Cristo Rey provides, especially when it comes to motivating the students and broadening their understanding of the world. He said that even if the school received a $1 billion grant, the corporate work aspect would remain.

"We actually think that having them work for their education is a very good idea," he said. "The kids are behind in book learning but way ahead in street smarts. It doesn't take them long to realize, `Hey these people (at the companies) are no smarter than I am. If I stay in school I can work in one of these places.' "

Raven Johnson is beginning her senior year at the school. She has worked at Deutsche Bank since her freshman year. She likes it there, and they like her.

"I refill printers, scan documents, input data to excel from different accounts. It's an international bank, and I work in the compliance department, which makes sure people who work there comply with rules like customer privacy," the 17-year-old said.

Johnson lives in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium. She said that if she had not gone to Cristo Rey, she feels that her life would have been substantially different.

"Because being here I feel like I'm on track, I'm going somewhere," she said. "I'm motivated. If I wasn't here, I wouldn't be so independent."

When she spoke, she did so slowly and thoughtfully, as if rolling questions over in her brain, inspecting them and then delivering a fully thought-out response.

She didn't speak like a normal 17-year-old, and in fact none of the students in interviews or in classrooms sounded their age. They sounded the way professional athletes sound when they've successfully come back from career-threatening injuries: Happy to have the opportunity.

As she walked back to her classroom, a school administrator walking past saw her and informed Raven that she had been accepted as a national finalist for the Posse Foundation Scholarship, which would provide a full scholarship to her college of choice for all four years. Raven barely reacted, just nodded and said "OK, cool." This was big news, but she seemed determined not to get her hopes up until anything was final.

In Sister Jude Biank's sophomore English class, the students were silently writing down a response to the question of who is someone in their life they would call their hero. Over the summer they had read that staple of the high school experience, Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The lights were off, and the light of the bright morning shone through the windows that look out to the Church of the Good Neighbor, which sits across 106th Street. When Sister Biank turned the lights back on it was time to share.

She called on Matthew Mendoza, sitting four rows deep near the left wall of the narrow Manhattan classroom.

He said that his mother was hero because she allowed him to attend the school and had allowed him to remain in the school.

Part of Cristo Rey's mission is to serve those students "in the middle." Students whose families are economically able to afford a traditional Catholic or otherwise private school are mostly eliminated.

Students who are so bright that their potential is pronounced are frequently offered scholarships at more prestigious private schools. On the other end of the spectrum, Cristo Rey does not accept students with poor attendance records or behavioral issues.

"We're looking for kids who are kind of unique, students who are driven, whose options would be public schools, not other Catholic ones," said Director of Admissions William Porcaro. "The average family income is around $31,500, but in terms of adjusted available income, a number that reflects how much money a family has available for education and other costs beyond basics, the group we just admitted has a negative number of more than $4,000."

In 2012, the school accepted about 50 percent of the students that applied.

It is this pursuit of the middle-range students that can also draw critical questions.

Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath is an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and the author of two books, most recently "Tough Choices: Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice." She has had hands-on experience with one of the schools in the Cristo Rey network.

"I have serious concerns about this type of network," she said. "As part of their mission, they screen students for family involvement and for a clean behavior record. This is not a charge against them, but this means that their model cannot really provide a solution for minority or low income students, because not everyone fits into their model.

"Anyone who has a profile that can mark them for possible success is weeded out of the public education system, meaning that public schools are left with only students who have very problematic profiles for success. If the prep schools of the world are taking away the top, then the Cristo Reys are taking the middle out as well, leaving the public education system with the charge of educating only the bottom students. On the one hand, it's great; students shouldn't be stuck in a failing school just to support their failing peers. However as a systemic solution, this is not an answer."

At 8:25 a.m. the CWSP staff have the freshmen in the auditorium lined up against the wall by work destination. One group will go to Wall Street, another to Times Square, another to Grand Central Station, chaperoned by a member of the staff.

Part of the lineup is a check of the strict dress code: boys in shirts and ties and slacks, girls in button-up shirts. Some of the kids look like young professionals, others look like they accidentally put on their mother or father's clothes that morning. Some appear as if they're still shopping in the children's department.

Time sheets and maps are handed out to all the students. Before they leave, Program Associate Johanna Diaz gave the students some last-minute advice.

"Before you leave for the day don't just fill out your time sheet and walk out. Ask your supervisor, `Is there anything else you need?' It's 5:15, they're probably not going to say yes, but it's a courtesy and it makes you look good."

Heese, hustling between groups stopped and shouted out more advice over the din of movement, which turned to silence as he spoke.

"You guys look terrified. Everyone look at me and smile. When you go in, walk up to your supervisor, shake their hand and smile. Firm handshake, eye contact. You want to show them that you are a Cristo Rey student worker, not some 14-year-old off the street."

By 8:30 a.m., the students were leaving East Harlem in groups for the subway.

By 9 a.m., they would be walking into the climate-controlled lobbies of glass skyscrapers, bravely entering a new and foreign world for the first time.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews