By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 6, 2016
ATLANTA—Eight-foot-high letters will soon crown a downtown Atlanta office building to announce the future home of Cristo Rey Atlanta High School.
The Jesuit-sponsored high school for students from families with lower incomes is outgrowing the Midtown Atlanta site where it opened in August 2014.
Students in the fall of 2017 will be filing into classrooms in a repurposed former corporate headquarters at 222 Piedmont Avenue. The senior class will be the freshmen who opened Cristo Rey Atlanta. The coed school currently has freshmen, sophomores and juniors.
Deacon Bill Garrett, school president, said the new location matches the school’s long-term vision by putting it on a firm footing for generations to come and in an ideal location. It is a few blocks from public transit, essential for the students who commute from 10 different counties.
The two-year-old Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School is part of a “noble Catholic tradition of providing value-based education, accessible to all,” Deacon Garrett said. Catholic education over the past generation has become difficult for families to afford, he said, but Cristo Rey has a unique business model to serve the working class. The average family income at Cristo Rey High School is about $30,500, he said. According to the census, that is about half the median household income for the Atlanta area. About 100 businesses partner with the school in a corporate work-study program to hire students, who spend one day a week in these jobs. The income covers nearly 70 percent of the cost of a student’s tuition.
Jesuit Father John Foley developed the Cristo Rey model in Chicago in 1996 and there are now 32 high schools in more than 20 states in the Cristo Rey network.
Cristo Rey Atlanta will fill the 70,000-square-foot former headquarters of Oxford Industries Inc., which are being renovated into four floors of classrooms and specially designed science labs. The company moved out in 2012.
A second phase of construction will provide the school with a facility for sporting events and fine arts concerts.
A capital campaign by Cristo Rey Atlanta has raised some $20 million, with another $5 million needed to complete its goal.
The new sign topping the building will be unveiled on Sunday, Oct. 23.
Growth prompts move
Cristo Rey Atlanta is in the enviable position of being too successful and is moving a year earlier than planned. The school is bumping up against the maximum number of students and faculty allowed in the 680 West Peachtree Street building where it opened.
One reason is that more students than predicted are sticking with the challenging college-prep program.
The three-story West Peachtree Street building, which used to house the chancery of the Atlanta Archdiocese, has room for about 400 students and faculty. The rent-free lease is to expire in June 2018. The new high school building can serve up to 550 students.
Cristo Rey Atlanta has retained about 80 percent of its original freshman class. A sister school in Philadelphia recently graduated about 50 percent of its first class, which is the highest number of inaugural students to complete a Cristo Rey high school.
The capital campaign got a shot in the arm when Jim Cumming, an Atlanta real estate developer, gave the school the Piedmont Avenue property. It is currently covered in construction material as workers convert offices into classrooms. The contribution was valued at $4.5 million, the largest gift of the campaign.
“I had no idea I was going to do this,” said Cumming, who worships at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
Cumming was educated at a Jesuit high school in his native Canada. The teachers and priests at Regiopolis College impressed on him the importance of being “a person for others,” he said.
“Somebody’s been looking out for me for a long time. Maybe it’s time for me to do something,” he said about the donation.
As Cumming told it, Deacon Garrett looked him in the eye and asked him to donate the building. Impossible, he said in response.
“I woke up in the middle of the night. I thought for a second, what’s impossible?”
Cumming said he and his wife, Janet, considered the idea and made the donation.
The students make the school what it is, and they are striving to help themselves and their families without the advantages many others enjoy, said Cumming.
Overall, 406 donors have contributed to the $20 million already raised.
More envisioned for arts, sports
The academic building renovation, which is scheduled to be done by next spring, adds 28 classrooms, 38 offices, three conference rooms, a cafeteria and kitchen, among other facilities.
School supporters continue to raise money to pay for the final piece of the campus renovation. Plans call for the existing parking deck to be razed. In its place, architects designed a platform with parking underneath. An enrichment building will be built on the platform. The building will serve as the hub for fine arts and music education, in addition to providing a regulation-size gymnasium and a space for the whole school to gather.
School leaders consider this final phase important to complete. Most students initially enroll because of their parents’ interest in the strong academic program, but having an athletic component is key to helping male students envision themselves studying at the school, Deacon Garrett said. As it is, the 380-member student body is 58 percent female and school leaders want to keep the gender ratio equal, he said.
The enhancements will also provide students with a well-rounded high school experience.
If the work isn’t done now, it will be more expensive in the future and more disruptive to the academic environment if teachers have to compete with construction noise, Deacon Garrett said.
Jahari Fraser will be a senior when the new school building opens. The 16-year-old has worked at the Arby’s Restaurant Group and now at an international consulting firm as part of the corporate work-study program. He is a member of the school’s new robotics club. He said the new facilities will open up opportunities for students, but he expects the teacher-student engagement to remain high caliber.
He said a new cafeteria will be welcome, in addition to a larger daily Mass chapel that can serve more students.
“The address of Cristo Rey Atlanta might change, but the culture of it will not. We will always be ‘The School That Works in the Heart of Atlanta,’” he said in an email.
To learn about the school and its capital campaign, visit www.cristoreyatlanta.org.