By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 7, 2014
ATLANTA—Some 160 first-year students filled Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School on Monday, Aug. 4, as the newest Catholic high school in the community opened.
After nearly a year and a half of planning to start the school, some students arrived before the doors even opened at the 680 West Peachtree Street building.
“It’s alive. It’s a real change,” said the principal, Jesuit Father Jim Van Dyke. “It is wonderful to have the building filled with students.”
Bethy Ramirez was among the students.
“It was exciting getting exposure to how the schedule is going to work,” she said about this first day.
She said they learned some of the skills they would need in the workplace, including communicating and making good first impressions.
Ramirez attends St. Patrick Church, in Norcross, but lives in Lawrenceville. Her daily commute to the school involves riding in a car and on MARTA with a fellow student. She said her favorite part of being at the school is likely to be the workplace component because law firms are participating, and she hopes to be a criminal attorney one day.
“I was really excited to hear they were going to do that,” said Ramirez, who would otherwise have attended Gwinnett County’s Berkmar High School if not for the opening of Cristo Rey.
Cristo Rey Atlanta is the 28th high school in a nationwide network of Cristo Rey schools. They offer a unique educational program. Students, who can be of any faith, must come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The schools offer a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. And the students work in a corporate office for about 45 days a year. The companies pay the school for the student’s work, which covers a large share of the school tuition. Also students will be in school longer. There are some 195 school days, about two weeks longer than a typical school year. The school day also lasts longer, starting at 7:30 in the morning and ending at 4:30 in the afternoon. Students in the middle of July attended mandatory summer academic enrichment. The mission is to prepare students to go on to college and beyond.
Sean McNeal wakes up at 5:30 in the morning at his Peachtree City home to start his journey to school. He rides MARTA, getting on in College Park. It’ll be another 12 hours before he gets home. For him, learning is not just what is in the books, but also about the cultures of other students. About half the school is African-American, like McNeal, and the other half is Latino.
“It’s been good, but I think it’s going to get harder. I think I am prepared for it,” said the 14-year-old, who had planned to attend North Clayton High School.
The next two weeks are focused on what is called the Business Training Institute, learning keyboarding, business communications and other skills. Then high school classwork begins.
Donors, from corporations and other private schools to the Knights of Columbus and individuals, contributed to make Cristo Rey Atlanta possible. Some donated buses, while others gave furniture and others are student mentors.
“This is a real indication of a need. The Catholic commitment to the common good is really fulfilling. The high school is awesome, along with our staff and our faculty,” said Bob Fitzgerald, chairman of the board of directors. “It’s been a true village project for our children,” he said.
The Midtown neighborhood office building, which housed the administrative offices of the Archdiocese of Atlanta for many years, has been converted to a 39,000-square-foot school with 16 classrooms. There are eight teachers.
Deacon Bill Garrett, the president of the school, joined the effort to open the school in the winter of 2013.
“In some ways, it’s a miracle. We had $7,800 in the bank. We didn’t have a location nailed down. This was a construction zone for longer than we expected. We were asking families to make a leap of faith,” he said.
And they did. Nearly 90 percent of students accepted an invitation to attend and be the pioneering class. School leaders had anticipated only around 70 percent would accept.
Deacon Garrett said more families embraced the school’s mission than expected, so nearly 40 additional students are there. Parents were impressed to have the school linked with well-known corporate names, like The Coca-Cola Company, UPS, Delta, he said. Also, parents may have been pushed to give the school a chance by the challenges facing the Atlanta and DeKalb County public schools, he said. Those communities have charter schools as an alternative for children in primary grades, but there are not many alternatives for high school, he said.
Father Van Dyke joked with students who just finished an exam. He was about to celebrate Mass for two dozen students and staff.
“You were brilliant? Say yes,” he said. “I want brilliance.”
As the midday Mass began, he prayed, “We ask God to bless who we are so we can be great.”
Later, the veteran high school educator talked about how he encouraged students and their families to remember their choice to go down a different path than their children’s peers. The college prep courses may be harder than some parents accomplished in their own education, as the students learn Latin and work in corporate offices, he said. The parents must encourage their kids when the students feel challenged, he said. “That was a good choice. Stick with it,” he said.
Read a commentary by Deacon Bill Garrett, president of Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, here.