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When 18-year-old David Benavidez of Temple Hills takes his seat at Prince George’s Community College this fall, he will be the first member of his family to attend college.

Benavidez, raised by a single mother, said he’s grown since attending Don Bosco Cristo Rey private Catholic high school in Takoma Park. After acing a physics class, he decided to pursue mechanical engineering, he said. And the school’s faculty has helped him deal with his anger issues, making him more mature, he said.

The recent graduate is a member of the first graduating class of Don Bosco Cristo Rey, where the median annual family income of its students is less than $35,000. Despite their varied economic backgrounds, all 70 graduating seniors were accepted to college. And about 60 percent of the school’s graduates who have been accepted to colleges are the first in their families with such an opportunity.

At a graduation ceremony held Thursday in a church on Catholic University’s campus, the students donned traditional caps and gowns to celebrate their trailblazing success.

“It’s an excellent school for students from the inner-city who want to change their lives and get into college,” said Father Steve Shafran, member of the Salesians of Don Bosco and founding president of the school.

The school opened its doors on Larch Avenue in Takoma Park in August 2007 and now serves 280 students in the greater D.C. Metropolitan area. Enrollment will be expanded each year until it reaches 500 students, Shafran said.

The school is unique because most students come from tough economic backgrounds, Shafran said. Students pay for roughly half of their $2,500 tuition through a Corporate Work Study Program, which places them at sponsoring companies five days a month. Possible placements include law firms, hospitals and Fannie Mae.

“The students are empowered,” he said. “They themselves take care of the majority of their school costs, and that’s transformational.”

Ta’Shawn Black, 18, of the District, is living proof. She worked at a law firm for three-and-a-half years working in confidentiality and information technology. When she looks back at pictures from her freshman year, she can’t believe how much she’s changed, she said.

“The pictures go to prove it: I looked unprofessional the first year,” she said.

But by graduation day, she said she’s gained confidence that will carry through to future career opportunities. In the meantime, she’s enrolled at St. John’s University in New York to study criminal justice and psychology, she said.

“There are a lot of things I couldn’t have done without this school experience,” she said. “The people I met and the opportunities I had were just so unique.”

Black and Benavidez said the small classes meant the school became a family. Benavidez said he looked up to one of his teachers, Father Abraham Feliciano, as a father figure.

“Growing up, I had a lot of different emotions I didn’t know how to deal with,” he said. “I was just angry a lot. ... When I met Father Abe, he helped me deal with that and release that. He just helped me grow up.”

Shafran said he’s seen the hard shells of the inner-city students transform into something positive. As students tugged on their graduation caps backstage at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception Thursday, Shafran reflected on the lesson he takes away from the school’s first graduating class.

“Never underestimate the power of young people,” he said.

jderbedrosian@gazette.net