By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 8, 2018 | En Español
ATLANTA—Students, parents, benefactors and civic dignitaries celebrated the dedication of the new Cristo Rey Jesuit Atlanta High school building on Jan. 30.
Dancing cheerleaders sporting large hair ribbons and confetti and streamers streaking through the air added to the excitement, as students and staff danced to hip-hop and Spanish music piped over the sound system.
With oversized scissors, students and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal cut a ribbon in the middle of the gym as part of the ceremonies on campus at 222 Piedmont Ave., a $30.3 million-renovation project for the school, which serves youth from economically disadvantaged families.
“Miracles happen. Miracles happen every day here in Cristo Rey,” said Dominic Mazzone, the chairman of the board of trustees.
The school is a ministry that levels the educational playing field for families with limited resources. It gives students a chance at an opportunity for work and college they desire and deserve, he said.
“The school gives our students a hand up,” emphasized Mazzone.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Gov. Deal were among the ceremony guests, including Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory. Representing the Society of Jesus were Jesuit Father John Cecero, leader of the Northeast Province, and Father Robert Hussey, leader of the Maryland Province.
Gov. Deal said the school faculty and staff members are shaping future community leaders.
He suggested the students stay focused on “a strong mind, a strong body and a strong character” as a pathway to success.
Mayor Bottoms said school supporters are “standing in the gap” to make the students succeed.
“As a city, we continue to support you. We continue to cheer you on. And we continue to await your leadership because you are the future of our great city,” she said.
Archbishop Gregory said Cristo Rey Atlanta serves a vital part of the community. “Our students come from families who believe in them, but who need some assistance to achieve all the potential that is within their hearts,” he said.
The archbishop thanked the business leaders who support the school’s work-study program. The school’s unique corporate work-study program helps young people develop important skills and finances the majority of the cost of their educations.
The archbishop said he is grateful to the Society of Jesus for its long history of supporting education to prepare young people as future leaders.
Desire to achieve
Cristo Rey revitalized the empty seven-story corporate headquarters of Oxford Industries. The 1960s-era building was converted into a 21st-century school, with state-of-the-art science labs and a new gym. It is home to 550 students. Each of the four floors of classrooms is reserved for a grade of the school.
The high school outgrew its original midtown Atlanta site where it opened in August 2014. The academic building renovation added 28 classrooms, a cafeteria and kitchen, among other needed spaces.
Robert Fink, a steadfast supporter, sees a bit of himself in Cristo Rey’s students. He had a tough start. His dad died when he was a baby. The New York native was raised by a single mom.
When he dreamed of attending a Catholic school, it was out of reach.
“I’ve been there. I was there. There was a lot of things I wanted to do but I couldn’t,” said Fink, a former attorney who started a nonprofit hospital focused on people in need of mental health care.
As high school approached, Fink delivered newspapers to make ends meet. He cobbled together enough money to attend a school staffed by members of the Christian Brothers religious community. A scholarship allowed him to continue with his Catholic education from high school, then to college and later law school.
Fink worked in Atlanta for the prestigious law firm of Troutman Sanders LLP as a tax attorney and public accountant. In the mid-1970s he started a nonprofit mental health hospital, Ridgeview. After it was sold in 2017 the Fink family inaugurated the Gift of Hope Foundation.
Fink said he sees a desire to achieve among these students, who share his working class roots.
“These students are disciplined and it’s a sacrifice. In meeting with them, they have high hopes,” said Fink, who serves as student mentor.
He attends St. Jude the Apostle Church, Sandy Springs, where he is an extraordinary minister of communion, a member of Serra Club and part of the adoration ministry. He and his large family attended the dedication, where he announced the family foundation would pay for support services at the school for the next four years.
The school’s first gymnasium, home court of the Cristo Rey Flames, was named in the family’s honor.
A school system that is “flourishing”
Cristo Rey schools first began in 1996 in Chicago. The mission is to prepare high school boys and girls from low-income families for college opportunities. The college prep education is matched with entry-level professional work experience that pays some 70 percent of tuition.
The Chicago Jesuit priest who dreamed up the idea and founded the first Cristo Rey Jesuit High School called Atlanta a “poster child” for the program. It is doing well attracting work-study partners and producing academic results, said Father John Foley.
Many Catholic schools are under financial strain and face closing their doors with dropping enrollments, but Cristo Rey is flourishing as a system, he said. There are 32 schools in its network.
It works because good people “come together and make it grand,” said Father Foley. “There is so much God-given talent that has been allowed to bloom.”
At the dedication, the school recognized its corporate sponsors where other schools hang championship banners. Close to 150 companies, from small businesses to Fortune 100 firms, hire the students for the work-study program.
Hala Moddelmog, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, lauded the school and its students.
“We are very, very proud to have this organization in our region. Our companies stepped up and wanted to be a part of it,” said Moddelmog.
The school is part of the “talent pipeline” that makes the region economically vibrant, she said. “We are very fond of this program. We probably brag on it more than we deserve.”
The high school will graduate its inaugural class of seniors this spring. Among them will be Jahari Fraser.
“Welcome to the new and permanent home for Cristo Rey Jesuit High School,” said Fraser, the student council president, to the crowd. “We have found a place to call home. This couldn’t have happened without you.”