Published December 20, 2012
The new board of directors of the proposed Cristo Rey Atlanta High School for economically disadvantaged youth is accelerating school fundraising and working to secure corporate work-study partners to meet its updated target opening date of fall 2014. It has also announced an agreement for Jesuit sponsorship of the school.
The Cristo Rey Atlanta team, led by feasibility study coordinator Timothy Hipp and Bob Fitzgerald, chairman of the board of directors, plans to open the 500-student independent Catholic high school on the 30-acre grounds of St. Paul of the Cross Church in Atlanta, which once had an elementary school. They recently finalized an agreement to have the Maryland Province Jesuits sponsor the school.
Now the board is preparing to name a president in January and principal by spring. It is formally launching the capital campaign with honorary chair Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to raise approximately $10 million in pledged donations by April to submit their application by June 2013 to the national Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network of 25 schools and 7,400 students.
Meanwhile, the feasibility study board continues completing surveys and research, presentations to community leaders and other groundwork.
Once national network approval is granted, Cristo Rey Atlanta will begin the launch year and forge ahead in hiring faculty and staff, renovating at St. Paul of the Cross and meeting required monthly benchmarks. Open houses should begin next winter to recruit its first freshman class of 125.
“It’s a six-month push to get this done, and I think we can,” said Hipp. “When the funds are raised and the feasibility study application is completed, submitted and accepted by the network, the floodgates will open with activity.”
Fitzgerald, a retired Bell South executive, called Cristo Rey schools a “beautiful model to break the cycle of poverty that so many kids are caught in.”
“Cristo Rey, with its being part of a network of 25 other schools, has already shown this is a very efficient, effective and successful way of addressing the educational needs of many talented youth, of kids that quite honestly don’t have a lot of options,” he said.
Fitzgerald was stepping down as executive director of the Jesuit Ignatius House Retreat Center and seeking a new ministry when he connected with Hipp and others already exploring the need to bring Cristo Rey to Atlanta. With his background, he believes the Jesuit sponsorship is the “perfect fit.”
“There are over 50 Jesuit secondary schools in the U.S. and they are worldwide. We are getting a huge amount of expertise and commitment and mission-driven sponsorship for Cristo Rey,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s going to be a college prep, academically challenging school preparing kids for college, but there is so much more to this. It’s developing the whole person where they see themselves as discerning on how to serve others. That’s a driving part of Jesuit philosophy and a driving part of Ignatian philosophy. In everything we do, the model is for the greater glory of God.”
Hipp added that project supporters, the Marists, longtime educators in Atlanta, and the Passionists, who staff St. Paul of the Cross Church, also welcome the collaboration.
The Jesuits “will be putting financial resources and (possibly) personnel into it. … Now it’s a marriage of three with the Jesuits leading,” Hipp said. “It is especially attractive in Atlanta as there is no Jesuit educational institution for Jesuit alums to support or rally behind.”
Leaders initially planned to open Cristo Rey in the fall of 2013, but Hipp said that they determined that more time was needed to do groundwork and assemble the board of directors—including the president, Jesuit Father T.J. Martinez of the “extremely successful” Cristo Rey Houston.
This year “we did a lot of work to build community support to raise awareness with families and prospective students. … There are 10 milestones that we have to have and eight will be finished soon.”
One remaining milestone is to secure 35 formal partnership agreements with corporations to implement Cristo Rey’s unique economic sustainability model where students work five full days a month in an entry-level job in legal, business, health care and other fields to finance 70 to 80 percent of their tuition. The future school’s location on Harwell Road in northwest Atlanta, less than a mile from MARTA, facilitates transportation.
Chief operating officer Jack Crowe of the Cristo Rey Network affirmed the “great team of clergy, community leaders, business leaders and educators running the feasibility study in Atlanta.”
“We are also grateful to have the support of Archbishop Gregory,” Crowe wrote in an email. “If in the coming months we can meet certain marks around fundraising and corporate work-study job commitments—which are very doable with support from the Atlanta community—the school can open in fall 2014.”
“The Cristo Rey Network very much wants to open a high school to serve low-income students in Atlanta so that they have a choice of a faith-based college prep education. After Dallas, Atlanta is the largest city in the U.S. that does not yet have a Cristo Rey school. … We believe the business community in Atlanta will embrace a school where students not only work, but pay for their own education and learn the job skills they need to succeed in college and life.”
Their first job agreement came from Woodward Academy, where Hipp chairs the computer science department. Other partners are CBeyond and Morgan Stanley. Additionally, Woodward donated three buses and a mini-bus.
“They want to help out because it’s good for the city,” said Hipp.
Jesuit Father John Foley established the first Cristo Rey High School in Chicago in 1995 to serve working-class Hispanic families, having returned from years of education work with the poor in Peru. He and his team created the model that spread nationwide and has been recognized twice by the White House.
While the school will be Catholic, applicants are not asked about religion and nationwide 40 percent of students are non-Catholic. Most are minorities, and all come from low-income families with 75 percent eligible for federal free or reduced lunch programs.
Crowe said that most Cristo Rey students enter the school two years below grade level, so the curriculum is designed to fit six years of learning into four. Eighty-five percent of graduates attend college, and 85 percent persist into sophomore year.
“We are getting these results because of our unique blend of a Catholic school culture, our work-study program and an academic program that gives students the academic and social skills they need to succeed in college,” said Crowe.
From speaking at churches to charter schools, Hipp has been surprised to be warmly received across the city. St. Paul of the Cross “embraced” the proposal, he said.
“It’s really rewarding. … People are saying, what can we do to help?” he said. “It’s a Catholic school and serves all families and faiths. Catholic schools in our city have a quality reputation for academics. For many of the families, they look at it as high-level academics and faith-based and respectful of their culture.”
Hipp was earning a master’s degree in private school leadership at New York’s Columbia University when he had an “epiphany” about reaching the least. Then he had a conversation about bringing a Cristo Rey school to Atlanta with his mentor, Father Joel Konzen of the Marist School, and project leaders formally launched the feasibility study in fall 2011.
“You have to have an element of faith. You start with an idea. We’ve seen it in other cities but not in Atlanta,” he recalled. “It slowly evolved. You can see it, you can see your faith in action.”
Hipp is deeply invested and facing daily challenges with prayer and resolve, enjoys the process.
“I love it. I live and breathe it every day,” he reflected. “What happens in the end, that is God’s plan.”
With two young children, he appreciates more deeply the value of giving youth a solid path out of poverty.
“I feel that responsibility every day because these kids are counting on it,” he said. “It’s so exciting. You’re not only talking about starting a new school, which is rewarding in itself, but thinking about kids who are going to go to failing schools … and you are going to give them high academics and a chance to succeed. I’ve met these kids and their families.”