WATTS — When he was 9, Christian Kirby-Hernandez was diagnosed with leukemia. For years, day-to-day struggles were his focus, much less graduating from high school.
But on May 6, Kirby-Hernandez declared his university of choice, Cal State Dominguez Hills, along with his 57 classmates at Verbum Dei High School’s annual College Commitment Day.
It was the ninth consecutive year that the entire graduating class of the small Watts parochial school has achieved 100 percent college acceptance.
It was an emotional day for parents, teachers and students, more than half of whom will be the first in their family to attend college. With applause and cheers from the audience, which also included the junior class, each senior took the stage and announced which college he planned to attend. Some removed shirts or sweatshirts with bravado, revealing a T-shirt underneath from their intended school.
“I am overwhelmed with joy,” Kirby-Hernandez said, “I never saw myself here.”
While he was receiving leukemia treatments, Kirby-Hernandez missed out on the second semester of his fourth grade year, all of fifth grade and the first semester of sixth grade. When he started at Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes, he found himself a victim of bullying.
“I was picked on because of my lack of hearing,” he said. “I was probably an easy target because I missed two years of school. I was really behind academically and socially.”
He found out about Verbum Dei from his godfather, who was working there as a science teacher and had recommended the school to his older brother. Even though Kirby-Hernandez had failed sixth, seventh and eighth grade, the school allowed him to enroll for high school.
It is ingrained in Verbum Dei’s mission to provide opportunities. As part of its Corporate Work Study Program, each student works five days a month as an intern with a corporate partner. The businesses pay a quarter of the $2,700 yearly tuition.
In addition, more than 75 percent of students receive financial aid on top of the assistance from the work-study program, according to interim principal and psychology teacher Brandi Odom. And next year, the school is establishing an SAT prep course so students don’t have to pay for it elsewhere.
“Our goal is to never have a student quit because of tuition,” Odom said.
The school is part of the Cristo Rey Network, a group of 30 schools of its kind nationwide. Its aim is to provide a private, Catholic education to students who couldn’t otherwise afford one. Verbum Dei is the only Cristo Rey School in Los Angeles.
“Watts is seen as a drug-infested area with youth that doesn’t amount to much,” said Rosie Robles, whose son, Michael Romero, is among the graduating class. “It’s so good that this school gives them this experience. It turns them into ‘little men.’”
This year is significant, Odom said, because more students are attending four-year rather than two-year institutions. Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cal State Northridge and St John’s University in Minnesota were popular choices.
In an address to the seniors, Odom emphasized the community atmosphere of the school, which will continue to look out for its members long after they have left campus.
“If something happens over the summer, we want you to call us,” she said. “If something happens in your first, second, third or fourth year, we still want you to call us.”
And as a final sendoff, the faculty pitched in to a fund to cover book fees for the students’ first year. While it was only intended for one student, Odom said, the collections are going so well that there’s a strong chance it can be divided among all the seniors.
At Cal State Dominguez Hills, Kirby-Hernandez plans to major in business and marketing while continuing his passion for writing music.
“Music’s the last thing people expect me to do because of my hearing loss,” Kirby-Hernandez said. He received a cochlear implant this year to improve his hearing.
“People would call me crazy, but I see cancer as a blessing because it’s helped me become the person I am.”