Too often, children from disadvantaged families don’t know how to step on the first rung of a corporate ladder – much less climb one. They likely have never seen the inside of a law office or an accounting firm.

Catholic-based Cristo Rey Network, a chain of independently operated high schools, bridges that gap by connecting young people with professional entry-level jobs. From Miami to Boston to Los Angeles, more than 12,000 Cristo Rey students earn paychecks from top employers around the country.

Now, local children can enjoy the same opportunity. Starting next fall, Cristo Rey Orange County High will become the organization’s 39th school.

“Talent is universal, but opportunity is not,” said Stephen Holte, founding president of Cristo Rey OC. “Income should not determine a child’s future.”

The newest Cristo Rey school is centrally located in Santa Ana, on the campus of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church.

About 125 ninth-grade boys and girls will launch the inaugural class. Then, Cristo Rey OC will add a class each year – eventually growing into a four-year school.

Cristo Rey schools carve out one day weekly for students to work off-campus in offices, where the young employees learn to conduct themselves professionally while trying out potential careers.

“You can’t be what you don’t see,” Holte said.

Tuition is largely covered by the students themselves – leaving their parents and guardians to pay only about $90 per month. “That’s our secret sauce,” Holte said.

“We offer a hand up, not a handout.”

Already three dozen businesses, nonprofits and government agencies have committed to hiring Cristo Rey OC students.

Among the diverse array of employers are Fidelity Bancorp, Children’s Health of Orange County (CHOC), Orange County Transportation Authority, Latham & Watkins law firm, Best Western hotels, Northgate Market, King’s Seafood Company and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

Half of tuition comes from donor- funded scholarships, 45% from student paychecks and the remaining 5% from parents.

“It’s a partnership between family, philanthropy and work,” Holte said.

Students perform necessary tasks, not just busy work.

“Young people want to be treated like adults – they need to feel like a valued member of the team,” Holte said. “We work with employers to create real job descriptions and real jobs.”

Some students rotate through various worksites over the years. Others find a good fit for themselves early on.

Cristo Rey OC will provide students transportation from school to their employers.

The new school is now recruiting the current eighth graders who will kick it off next year. At a recent open house, parents and their middle schoolers gathered at the soon-to-be school to learn about its innovative approach.

Attendee Aaron Hill, a precocious 13-year-old, left impressed.

“The work-education balance appeals to me,” he noted. “I would like to go into a lucrative job. I think about money a lot.”

Beatriz Castaneda chuckled over her son’s candid ambition.

“Aaron constantly surprises me with the things that pop out of his mouth,” she said.

The organization’s creative work study model began in 1996 at its flagship campus. Based in Chicago, Cristo Rey Jesuit High won national attention for a successful recipe blending rigorous education with hands-on job experience.

Today, Cristo Rey schools boast a college enrollment rate of 90%. And then students leave college with better job prospects – thanks to four years of employment at major firms already on their resumes, as well as a list of references.

“Frankly, students from lower income families need something extra to get a foot in the door,” Holte said. “That’s because getting hired for that first post-college job can be who you know, not what you know.”

In addition to traditional academic courses, the curricula include topics like leadership skills, workplace etiquette and resume writing.

While the Cristo Rey mission includes spiritual growth, Catholicism is not a requirement.

“We accept students of all faiths or no faith,” said Steffanie Early, a founding vice president at the Orange County site.

College prep starts day one of freshman year. Students, many of whom will be the first in their families to attend college, visit university campuses and learn the mechanics of applying for admission and loans.

“We don’t ask, ‘Will you graduate from high school?’” Holte said. “We ask, ‘Where will you go to college?’”

Cristo Rey Orange County High School will be located at 2204 W. McFadden Ave. in Santa Ana. For more information, go to cristoreyorangecounty.org or call (714) 439-9626, ext. 101.