By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published March 1, 2012
The Cristo Rey Network opened 24 independent Catholic high schools for underprivileged urban youth in its first decade and aims to duplicate that in the next, emboldened by its success serving low-income families with its rigorous college preparatory curriculum.
And an Atlanta feasibility study board now is completing groundwork and forges ahead with plans to open the next Cristo Rey high school on the grounds of St. Paul of the Cross Church in the Atlanta Archdiocese with a target opening date of fall 2013.
Multiple volunteer committees are busy working on varying aspects of opening the proposed 500-student school—from curriculum and governance to funding to work-study positions.
Led by feasibility study coordinator Tim Hipp, the board of around 20, with honorary chairs Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, is garnering support across the city from everyone from hospital executives to education leaders to interested students. It is educating on the school’s mission to prepare at-risk teens for college and its 94-99 percent graduation rate. It is building partnership agreements with corporations to implement the school’s unique economic sustainability model where all students work five full days a month to finance 70-80 percent of their tuition. And facing the biggest immediate hurdle, the board is raising seed money by June to present with their application to the national Chicago-based network.
“We are working with expectations that we submit the application in June and hit the ground running in July” to hire staff, make building renovations and open 12 months later, said Hipp, chair of the computer science department at Woodward Academy and a parishioner at St. Jude the Apostle Church. “It’s encouraging. At every turn there are more and more people who’d like to help and say we’d love the city to have this.”
And he’s excited about the Cristo Rey mission to give hope and a future to poor youth.
“You’re telling kids, you’re going to get through high school and are going to go off to college and become a business executive, doctor or lawyer. For some of these kids I think they’ve thought about it, but the odds are stacked against them and we’re going to level that out a little bit,” he said. “You’re changing the family tree.”
Jesuit Father John Foley established the first Cristo Rey High School in Chicago in 1995 to serve working-class Hispanic families, having returned from 34 years of education work with the poor in Peru. He and his team created the model that spread nationwide where students work five days monthly in an entry-level white collar job at a professional company such as a hospital, bank or law firm—geared when possible toward career interests. President George W. Bush honored Father Foley with a Presidential Citizens Medal, and in January President Obama recognized him as a Champion of Change in Catholic education.
Network chief executive officer Robert Birdsell hopes for 25 more schools to open in the next decade, envisioning 50 schools serving 25,000 students.
“That’s a monumental change for urban America,” he said. “These kids, if not for our schools, they would likely be in disastrous public schools and they would probably not graduate from high school. … We believe families should have a choice to send their children to a good public school, a good charter school or a good Catholic school. In the inner cities, too many families don’t have that choice.”
While the school will be marketed in Catholic institutions, applicants are not asked about religion; 40 percent of students are non-Catholic and 90 percent are minorities, said Birdsell. And youth must have limited means—typically under $36,000 in annual household income. While students on average enter about two grade levels behind their age, Cristo Rey seeks those committed to their education and future. About 84 percent of their graduates enroll in college.
“We don’t do this because the kids are Catholic. We do this because we’re Catholic,” Birdsell said.
He also added that the network is completing new academic standards to be implemented network-wide and proudly emphasizes its performance accountability, data sharing among schools and transparency.
CR schools are helping to revitalize inner city Catholic education, he averred, countering the trend in which 2,000 Catholic schools have closed in the past 20 years. Atlanta has been considered a top market for a new school for years.
It’s “helping them develop their God-given talents for the sake of America and to help build God’s kingdom on earth. … We are very, very excited for Cristo Rey Atlanta. It’s going to be a great school and a great ministry for the city,” Birdsell said.
Hipp said that the St. Paul of the Cross Church site was selected due to its pastoral, wooded setting on 30 acres with a traditional private school ambience. It also has the infrastructure in having once had an elementary school, and they are consulting architects on remodeling plans. And its proximity to MARTA will enable youth to attend from across the city, leaders hope. Furthermore, at the parish, members are eager to help, and the Passionist religious order, whose priests staff the parish, “have embraced this project more than we could imagine.”
Hipp was earning a master’s degree in private school leadership from the Klingenstein Center, Teachers College at Columbia University, among the most elite private school educators when he had an “epiphany” about reaching out to serve the least. Then, about five years ago, he had a conversation about bringing a Cristo Rey school to Atlanta with his mentor, Marist Father Joel Konzen, of the Marist School, while working in Marist’s Reach for Excellence program for disadvantaged youth. The conversation continued, and Hipp with others formally launched the feasibility study last fall.
“My personality has always been to look for the student who isn’t the star, but maybe the forgotten kid, the kid who wasn’t having so much fun. … I’ve always tried to find support for that kid who is forgotten,” he said. “And Cristo Rey is a whole school for those who may not have the same choices as some of the other kids through no fault of their own, but they want that as much as the next kid, they want to go to college and do all the things other kids do.”
He’s heartened to already hear from students like a girl at KIPP South Fulton Academy, a public charter middle school, who wrote, “I’m not Catholic, but I’m a hard worker. I would do anything to go to this school. … When you came to our school the first thing that came to my mind is that it’s time for me to show what I’m truly made of.”
As part of the Cristo Rey Network, the Atlanta school would be independent of the archdiocese. But the archdiocesan superintendent of schools, Dr. Diane Starkovich, serves on the governance committee and Tom Campbell, associate superintendent, serves on the curriculum committee; they will provide assistance throughout the planning stages. Archbishop Gregory has granted permission for the school to continue with its application to the network with the idea that it will be a recognized Catholic school.
Starkovich said that Cristo Rey has proven to be a success and a “wonderful model” of also giving students practical work experience.
“I am extremely pleased with the progress being made to submit the proposed plan to the Cristo Rey Network in early June. The Cristo Rey Network has a national reputation for providing college preparatory curriculum in a Catholic school environment,” she wrote in an email. “Cristo Rey schools are normally found in areas of high poverty and high dropout rates. We know that for the cycle of poverty to be broken, students need to be afforded an opportunity to attend college. Cristo Rey schools have a high percentage of students graduating from high school and being accepted in various colleges.”
However the timetable evolves, she affirmed the need for Cristo Rey in Atlanta.
“When Tim and I met with the network representatives in Chicago, they mentioned to us that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ a Cristo Rey school will be located in Atlanta; rather, it’s a matter of ‘when.’ I agree!”