As the first graduates of Minneapolis' Cristo Rey Jesuit High School stood and prepared to turn their tassels, an unexpected guest joined them.

Ignoring calls for her to move or sit down, 62-year-old Maryan Abdi rose from her seat in the students-only section, pumping her fist in celebration.

"I was very happy and lost track of who they were asking about," Abdi said later through a Somali interpreter.

Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood has long been a gateway for immigrant families, a place for them to call home in a foreign land.

Now, Cristo Rey, a private school tucked away two blocks off Lake Street, has provided an opportunity for many of their children and grandchildren: an affordable private school education.

Cristo Rey celebrated its first graduating class this weekend, sending off all 60 graduates to college or the military. More than half of the class members are the first members of their families to graduate from high school.

Abdi sneaked a seat behind the students to be near her granddaughter, Nasteho Ahmed, who will enroll at Augsburg College in the fall.

Whether the families hailed originally from Africa, Latin American, Asia or the United States, the cheers and tears of joy were universally understood.

"There was nothing but excitement, not just for my grandchild, but for all the children," Abdi said. "I saw that throughout the room."

Cristo Rey's goal of serving only low-income families is strictly enforced. For the initial class, 50 students didn't make it through the application process because their families earned too much money.

In Minneapolis, families pay $240 a month for 10 months to cover their part of the tuition bill.

Their children cover the remaining roughly 70 percent through Hire4Ed, a work-study program that allows them to work one day per week in school-sponsored jobs. The money they earn is paid directly to Cristo Rey from one of 75 participating businesses across the Twin Cities.

"This school is here because somebody loved, because somebody cared," said keynote speaker Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Tutsi Rwandan refugee and author who writes of her harrowing escape from genocide. "There will always be someone who's kind who will open the door for you."

Of the 60 Cristo Rey graduates, 56 will attend college, some as far away as California's Bay Area and Washington, D.C. The remaining four graduates plan to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps.

In fall 2007, the freshman class for the Twin Cities campus was more than 100 students strong. Many left on their own or couldn't manage the demands of one full day of work and four nine-hour school days.

Those who stuck with it clutched their coveted diploma covers Saturday, many of them walking away with higher aspirations than they had as freshmen.

"It won't stop here," advised student speaker Mariah Mendoza, who will attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "We're going to continue to grow and show the world just how amazing we are."

The 268-student school has staff members and 60 juniors already looking forward to next June and the promise it holds for them and their families.

"The bar needs to be even higher," Cristo Rey Principal Jeb Myers said. "We've done a lot of good, but by no means are we resting."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491