By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 25, 2018
The Georgia Bulletin was with Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School as it opened four years ago, creating a series of stories that looked at the school’s ambitions, students and its unique partnership with Atlanta businesses. This story revisits the school as its first senior class graduates.
ATLANTA—Bethy Ramirez-Sanchez faced a final task before dressing in her cap and gown for the graduation ceremony at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School. She had to figure out how to get there by car.
She relied for years on a hour-long ride on a commuter bus or MARTA train to get to the downtown school, which launched her to college. Getting there on her own was a mystery. “I finally learned how to get to school. And I realized I am going to have to forget it again.”
Ramirez-Sanchez was among the 125 members of the inaugural class of Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School to receive diplomas Saturday, May 19. They were applauded by more than 1,500 family, friends, godparents and mentors who came to witness this group of teenagers move their tassels.
It was a milestone for a school with modest roots and big dreams—take teenagers “with grit” from poor families, train them to work in leading Atlanta businesses and in four years make them ready for college.
Ramirez-Sanchez interviewed with school leaders in 2014 for her application, at the former West Peachtree building. She wore a hardhat then since the building was a construction site. The renovation of the former administrative offices of the Atlanta Archdiocese into a school wasn’t finished at the time.
Earlier this spring, with graduation on the horizon, she now had the pick of attending 11 colleges.
“Cristo Rey has made me more sure about my future. I know I have the potential to do a lot,” she said. “Now I tell my parents when I go to college, I am going to change the world. I told them you’re going to hear about me in a couple of years.”
Commencement of a celebration
Hip-hop music blared over the speakers at the senior picnic. Tug-of-war had students tripping over themselves with laughter. Students crowded to get a photo with the school’s president. The upbeat youngsters wore their college T-shirts while President Bill Garrett wore a yellow oxford with a tie of school colors, striped gold and blue.
Graduation filled Garrett with “a sense of awe, a realization of the work of the Holy Spirit.” He is also a deacon, serving at All Saints Church, Dunwoody. He said thousands of people made the school possible.
“The hand of the Lord was evident throughout the voyage, but the Lord worked his miracles through people,” said Deacon Garrett.
“It’s been an incredible journey. (Five) years ago, we had $7,600 in the bank, we weren’t really sure where we were going to go because the initial location for the school didn’t work out, we didn’t have any students, any teachers, any jobs. To go from that starting point to where we are now is phenomenal.”
The campus of 500 students is a former downtown corporate office at 222 Piedmont Ave. Eight-foot-high letters announce the home of Cristo Rey, visible from the Downtown Connector highway. The school educates students from families of limited means and of any faith. Cristo Rey Atlanta is part of a network of more than 30 Catholic schools.
Businesses partner with the school in a corporate work study program to hire students, who spend one day a week in these jobs. Companies pay the school $32,000 for 40 days of work from a team of four students. The income covers nearly 70 percent of the $17,000 tuition. Families pay depending on their income, in amounts ranging from $250 to $2,500.
Some of the first class entered high school with only a seventh-grade reading comprehension. In the end, 76 percent of the students enrolled in the school’s first class graduated. All graduates had college acceptance offers from some 150 colleges. Former President Jimmy Carter videotaped a congratulatory message for them, played during the commencement program.
Balancing being a student and employee
The work study program is a pillar of the school. Students work at 135 companies, up from 41 the first year. Students engage with lawyers at law firms, share lunches with decision-makers at tech businesses and work for some of the world’s global business leaders.
The school sees itself as a ladder of social mobility and business responding out of desire to “change the trajectory of poverty” for young people, Deacon Garrett said.
Jahari Fraser, 17, remembered the business etiquette lessons taught at the Business Training Institute, a mandatory program before he stepped into a classroom. He did everything during his work study experiences from reconciling bank statements to administrative support.
“You have to mature at a much earlier age because you are expected to go into a corporate office with all these adults, to go into hospitals, to go into law firms and wear a blazer and uniform and do work that a normal teenager wouldn’t be doing,” said Fraser.
Students elected Fraser the president of the student council. He will attend Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. He earned a full-tuition award to the liberal arts college as a Posse Scholar. He hopes to major in international studies.
He believes the business skills he has acquired will be an asset at college.
“I went past my comfort zone. Now I know any task you throw at me, I can do it,” said Fraser. “I can finish it in the way that you want me to because for the past three years, I’ve done exactly that.”
Growth into confidence
English teacher Emily Bird was one of the founding faculty members.
“It felt like we were really building this thing from the ground up. We were building it while it was happening,” she said, sitting in the school’s spacious library of books.
She taught all the freshman class. Dozens of them this year asked for letters of recommendation to get a foothold in college.
“Not only have they been pushed academically, but they have literally been in different professions. They have been in law firms, they have been in hospitals, some of them have been in nonprofits. I think that is very cool for them to see,” said Bird.
Marcia Pecot taught science and became the senior class advisor.
“You can’t talk about … ,” she said, pausing to get a tissue to wipe her eyes. “It’s good emotion. Each student has changed my life in so many ways.”
Pecot talked about how a timid student now “shakes your hand with such tenacity you know he’s ready for college.”
“If he were somewhere else, I don’t think it would have been the same,” she said. “Our institution is really magical.”
Aiming to serve those in need
Ramirez-Sanchez, 18, is the first of her family to attend college. She is the oldest of a construction worker father and a stay-at-home mother. She will enroll at the College of St. Benedict, St. Joseph, Minnesota, to study accounting and pre-law. She hopes to dedicate her time as a lawyer to serve those in need who cannot pay.
She led an effort this year with campus ministry to fight domestic sex trafficking. Also, she taught religious education during the school year. She received the youth of the year award at her parish, St. Patrick in Norcross.
“There have been times when Cristo Rey is too much, when I have to wake up early, after that I have to go home and do homework, then go to church and help out. And sometimes I don’t get to sleep until very late at night, and I think to myself ‘is it really worth it?’ But it is worth it. My parents, at first, when they didn’t want me to come here, now they push me, they are working with me now, they are like, ‘Come on, Bethy, keep it up.’”
After the school ceremony, Ramirez-Sanchez had a party to get to at her home. With traditional food cooked by her mother, dishes of pozole and pupusa, some 50 people celebrated her achievement.
“It was bittersweet,” she said. “I’m finishing a chapter in my life, but I am starting a new one. It’ll be really far away from them.”