By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 1, 2014
ATLANTA—More than 400 parents, students and supporters helped to dedicate the new Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School as incoming students guided visitors through their future classrooms in a transformed office building.
The standing-room-only crowd burst into long and loud applause April 22 when the class of 2018 was asked to stand up, then another round of applause echoed as parents and families of the students were recognized.
“It’s kind of encouraging to see how happy people are. It gives you the feeling that something is good. You feel the love in the room,” said Autumn Smith, 14, of Decatur, who was initially skeptical about the school but is now excited to start as a freshman this summer.
Some 115 students have been accepted at the school in Midtown Atlanta, with a goal of 125 to fill the inaugural freshman class. Cristo Rey brings to Atlanta a school model designed to serve only economically disadvantaged students, who otherwise could not afford a Catholic school. Students do not have to be Catholic to attend.
The 680 West Peachtree Street building, formerly the Catholic administrative center, welcomes these students in July when the newest Catholic high school in the archdiocese opens its doors. It’s a unique school, combining a college prep curriculum with work experience in corporations such as Atlanta law firms, technology companies, hospitals and other industries. In addition to class, students at Cristo Rey will work five days a month at a sponsoring business, which gives students real life work experience and the fee for their work goes toward the cost of school tuition.
Cristo Rey began in 1995 in Chicago as a Jesuit initiative to help students in one city neighborhood get the college prep education they needed to have a path to college and work success. The corporate-work-study partnership has been a success, leading to now 26 high schools in the Cristo Rey model around the country.
The Atlanta site is across the street from the North Avenue MARTA station, which will help students travel to work assignments.
Parents hope the exposure to corporate life sets their children on a path to a career when they are adults.
“It’s very important to shape her into being an adult that I want her to be,” said Khalilah Degraffread, of Decatur, who works for a national insurance company.
She learned about the school on the news, did some Internet research and decided to pursue it for her teenaged daughter. She was drawn to the opportunity described on the school’s mission to “become men and women of faith, purpose and service.”
Rae Anne Harkness, who works for DeKalb County, said she was attracted to the “Jesuit education.”
She said the religious community is known for its rigorous educational programs.
“It teaches them to think, not just pass a test,” said Harkness, who pushed her daughter, Autumn Smith, to apply to the school.
“I’m really excited to be here,” said Harkness.
On Tuesday, April 22, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated a dedication Mass, along with a dozen priests. It featured readings in Spanish and English. Later, he walked the hallways of the renovated building, blessing the space and sprinkling holy water on the walls of future classrooms.
In his homily, he called the start of the school a “resurrection moment” for the archdiocese. The dedication will always be the most important part of the school’s history because it marks the public beginning of the school, he said. He thanked parents for entrusting their young people to the faculty to educate them.
Students and faculty will experience “many, many happy moments because of God’s grace,” he said, but the dedication will have pride of place simply because here the school starts in a special way.
Getting the school open has been a collaborative effort, drawing together private schools and businesses.
School board chairman Bob Fitzgerald said donations have included school buses, science lab equipment, computers and administrative support. The Archdiocese of Atlanta, with the “dogged” support of Archbishop Gregory, has given $1.5 million. Benefactors have given some $6 million, he said.
The principal is a Jesuit priest, Father Jim Van Dyke, who has worked in secondary education for 24 years.
Drawing young people from neighborhoods and schools scattered around Atlanta, Cristo Rey leaders are knitting the students together into a new school community. They have hosted small groups of students and organized a group trip to an Atlanta Hawks basketball game.
The teens got to meet all their classmates at the dedication.
Asianna Hogan, 14, is leaving a public middle school to attend Cristo Rey.
“I felt it was a great opportunity. It’ll be beneficial to me growing up. It’ll give me new challenges,” she said.
‘Adah Ricks, 14, of Decatur, is leaving a public charter school. She’ll be attending with her friend, Autumn Smith. While not Catholic herself, she said Catholic schools are known for their high standards of education.
Uriel Martinez-Cordina, 13, lives in Forest Park. He is an A and B grade student, but said he wants more than just good grades. He is drawn to the school’s work-study program.
“It lets you prepare for your future jobs,” he said.
Also, he said his current school isn’t challenging, so he is excited to be pushed harder academically with college-level classes.
“I was proud of myself I got accepted,” he said.