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Leadership Journey: Carissa Graves

Baton Rouge community leader Carissa Graves grew up with a father who was also her middle school principal and social studies teacher, but she thought she “was absolutely never going to be a teacher.”

A two-year stint at schools through the Americorps program, however, led Graves to

reconsider her position. “By way of that service I learned that I really liked hanging out with kids and I was pretty good teaching them too,” she says.

Today she continues her work in the education sector as Vice President for Community Engagement for Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School, an innovative private, Catholic school that opened in August 2016. This unique model combines college preparatory education with a Corporate Work Study Program and is part of a larger, national network of 32 schools. Students at Cristo Rey pay for their tuition through the school’s work study program.

A Unique Approach

Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School helps underserved students graduate ready to succeed in college and real life. “What makes Cristo Rey unique and unlike any other high school in the state is that our students work to earn a majority of their tuition,” Graves says.

Parents pay a portion of student tuition based on a sliding scale. To cover the gap, students work five school days a month during the school year from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at a variety of area companies. “Our students report to work with job partners all over the city — some of the best law firms, health centers, hospital systems, banks, credit unions,” Graves says.

Graves says for students the school serves, working in a corporate or business environment can be an eye-opening experience. “It’s an opportunity for them to watch and observe the role models around them in these work environments,” she says. “It also gives them a sense of hope and helps them to look forward at what their life could be and what their future careers might be.”

The experience also allows the students to build a strong foundation of workplace skills years before most college students land their first internship. “We hear from business partners that even college grads today have a hard time with soft skills — eye contact, solid handshake, proper work attire,” she says. “Our students are learning the soft skills and building a solid base of hard skills very early on. They are also building a network much sooner than an average student.”

Graves came on at Cristo Rey in March of 2017 to run the organization’s corporate work study program. The school just wrapped its second academic year with a class of freshmen and sophomores and is on track to graduate its first senior class in 2020. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady,” she says. “The sisters have invested their resources, time, prayer and money in helping us build a solid foundation.”

Non-Traditional Path

Graves is the first to admit she did not take a “traditional, straightforward path” to her current position. Upon graduating from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and completing her stint with Americorps, Graves found herself enamored with outdoor environmental education, with a focus in engaging students in hands-on activities outside the traditional classroom.

That type of work tends to be seasonal, Graves says, which led her to take a series of jobs throughout the Midwest and West, including stops in southern Wisconsin and outside Los Angeles (where she taught astronomy in the mountains) as well as Boulder, Colorado.

“Early on I just loved working with the kids, and I loved middle school age especially, because they see the world in a unique way,” she says. “They’re still impressionable and willing to engage with adults, but they are challenging.”

Graves eventually landed in Sacramento, where she took a full-time position teaching middle school science. “It felt like a huge grown-up step,” she says. She stayed for three years and continued to work as a wilderness instructor during the summers. It was then when she met her husband, Congressman Garret Graves, whose district covers portions of Baton Rouge.

She later moved to Washington D.C., where she taught at the nation’s first public boarding school, before moving to Baton Rouge 11 years ago. She has split her time raising the couple’s three children, participating in various education and community engagement initiatives, and playing a critical on-the-ground role in her husband’s 2014 campaign for Congress.

That winding path led her to Cristo Rey, where as Vice President for Community Engagement, she is helping connect businesses with students to offer them a solid foundation for life success.  “Particularly the students that we serve, they need an opportunity,” she says. “They have the potential so I feel very thankful to be part of giving them the opportunity to succeed.”

Cristo Rey & Success Labs

Every Spring and Fall, our two leadership series participants work with a local nonprofit to develop strategic initiatives and tackle a hands-on project that updates the organization’s facilities. This Fall, Success Labs’ Management Incubator and Leadership Coaching Series will be partnering with Cristo Rey to help their mission of equipping underserved youth with the education and skills to succeed in college and real life.

Stay tuned to learn about the series projects and more announcements.

Success Labs is a full-service, strategic organizational and leadership development company located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.

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