"Derontae!" he said. "Who let you in?"
Always the jokester, that Father Steve.
Derontae Mason and Father Steve gave one another a big hug and spent the next hour chatting about Derontae's first year at college in West Virginia.
"Hard but good," Derontae said.
The fact that Mason made it through the first year of college is a testament to him, his family, his high school and Potomac State College. Talk to most folks involved in getting students from the rough side of D.C. through high school and into college, and they will tell you that keeping a kid in school is a chore. Many start; few finish.
Few in the field would have been surprised if Mason, 18, had become a statistic on the side of students who didn't make it. As I wrote in a column last year, he grew up under rough circumstances, one of six children raised by a single mom. The family struggled and spent time in homeless shelters. Mason told me he spent more than a few nights sleeping in playgrounds.
His mother, Wandra Staton, pushed him and his siblings to get an education and get off the streets. Derontae applied for a spot in Don Bosco, which had opened in 2007 in an abandoned elementary school in Takoma Park. As Father Steve says: "We are an exclusive school. You have to be poor to get in."
You have to work to stay in. The model at Don Bosco and 24 other Christo Rey schools is rooted in work study: Students work at local companies, law firms, hotels and hospitals; the pay goes back to Don Bosco to support the school.
Derontae Mason graduated last spring and got a full ride to Potomac State, a junior college that feeds into West Virginia University. It's a small school in Keyser, a town in the hills of West Virginia.
"I was able to enjoy the night sky," Mason tells me. "Here in the city you don't see many stars."
Advocates for kids say their families often lure them back to the rough life in D.C. "My mother was not ready to let me go," he says, "but we got things right before I left. My family supported me."
Father Steve and Don Bosco did the same. A student outreach staffer messaged Derontae every other day and called to chat. Don Bosco established a social media network for alumni. The result: "We have 83 percent of our graduates enrolled for their second year," says Father Steve. He says 100 percent of the second graduation class has been admitted to schools such as Penn State, Georgetown and Villanova.
Derontae Mason hopes to be a pediatrician. He's gotten a few grades back: "A" in Intro to Psychology and "B" in English.
"Not easy," he says.
Not bad, either.
Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.