SAIS Collaboration Series
Modeling Collaboration: Cristo Rey Atlanta
Published October 2014
by: Sarah Stewart
Timothy Hipp, Chair of the Upper School Computer Science Department at Woodward Academy, first heard of Cristo Rey while working at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago in 1997. Cristo Rey had launched the previous year, and St. Ignatius offered to give them some computer equipment. Cristo Rey Schools are run by the Society of Jesus, whose members are called Jesuits. The schools serve children from low-income families, offering a college preparatory education and new future to those willing to do the work.
The concept resonated with Hipp. While an undergraduate at The University of Notre Dame, Hipp developed a love for social service projects, and in fact attributed his decision to go into teaching to a leadership role he fulfilled with the Appalachia Seminar, an experiential learning offering of the Center for Social Concerns. Hipp’s marriage and career eventually brought him to Atlanta. He was working at Woodward and his wife was a teacher at Marist School. Still service-minded, he participated in REACH for Excellence, a free leadership and enrichment program for middle school students from low-income families. In 2007, Hipp completed his Ed.M. at the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership at Columbia University’s Teacher College. His thesis paper explored service-learning projects at Woodward Academy and The Westminster Schools.
In 2010, Hipp participated in Leadership Woodward, a two-year program the school offers to a select group of aspiring leaders, started by its President Stuart Gulley. At the conclusion of the program, participants must undertake a group project that challenges their comfort zone in terms of leadership, and introduces them to environments as diverse as Woodward. Hipp had big dreams: he wanted to bring Cristo Rey to Atlanta.
The first Cristo Rey Jesuit High School opened in Chicago in 1996. The Jesuit Provincial wanted to create a quality, Catholic, college preparatory high school in the Pilsen community to serve its largely Hispanic, working-class families. Father John P. Foley had spent 34 years working in education in Tacna, Peru before he was called back to Chicago to oversee the project. His team devised a daring plan, a private school where students would work one day a week at nearby businesses to help pay for their tuition. The arrangement provided students with valuable work experience, the school with the funding it needed, and the businesses a way to help their community.
As word spread, educators around the country in Portland, OR, Denver, CO, and Los Angeles, CA, wanted to replicate the Cristo Rey model to serve their inner city students. In 2001, Foley established the Cristo Rey Network of schools. In 2003, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with philanthropists B.J. and Bebe Cassin of the Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation, granted $18.9 million to Cristo Rey to promote the replication of its schools.
Hipp had been in contact with the Cristo Rey network since 2008 and understood the requirements — a feasibility study to prove the school’s viability and organizing leaders to spearhead the project. The work would also require Hipp to cut his teaching duties to part-time. Unsure of their reactions, Hipp presented the idea to Gulley and Woodward’s former Vice President of Finance and Administration Barb Egan. The two thought it was an incredible opportunity and offered their total support.
Hipp’s project was well-timed. Atlanta had largely recovered from the recession with businesses and real estate prices rebounding. Bob Fitzgerald, a former board member of Marist, had recently retired as Executive Director of Atlanta’s Ignatius House Retreat, and was looking for his next mission. He enthusiastically came on board as chair of the school’s Board of Trustees. Also, the city’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory had previously expressed an interest in bringing Cristo Rey to Atlanta. Gregory is a Chicago native, and had served the church there. Gregory agreed to act as honorary chair in a fundraising campaign for Cristo Rey Atlanta. He also donated $1.5 million and the use of the former archdiocesan administration office building downtown. The office is about 39,000 square feet and once renovated, could house 16 classrooms.
Still there was much work to be done. The school needed faculty, prospective students, furniture, equipment, financial resources, administrative support, and corporations who would partner with it on its work-study program. Hipp recruited fellow educators from Woodward, Notre Dame Academy, Blessed Trinity Catholic High School, and Holy Spirit Preparatory School, plus other business leaders, to help with the feasibility study.
The model of Cristo Rey speaks directly to what those in the independent school world call the public purpose of private education. The topic was highlighted in an essay in Independent School magazine in 2000 by former head Albert Adams of Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco. He wrote: “Independent schools are uniquely positioned to make a difference in the public domain. Given the societal turf independent schools occupy, the considerable resources they command, and the powerful network of caring and influential people they attract, independent schools have the opportunity – and, I believe, the obligation – to do more than educate 1.5 percent of our nation’s children exceptionally well.”
As news of Cristo Rey’s move to Atlanta spread, local independent schools saw an opportunity to join in a remarkable effort. The Rev. Joel Konszen, S.M., principal of Marist, quickly became involved with the effort, offering to serve on the school’s board. Konzen had served as a mentor to Hipp ever since he approached him about starting a Cristo Rey school after his summer of service with the REACH for Excellence program. Konzen identified resources Marist could contribute and recruited students to volunteer. Marist’s Chief Financial Officer Susan Hansen also volunteered her time and expertise. Hansen had worked with a Cristo Rey School while working in Indianapolis, and understood its potential impact on the Atlanta community. She joined the committee in charge of the feasibility study and ultimately helped to build Cristo Rey’s budget, outlining how many kids they would need to break even. Hansen also agreed to offer ongoing administrative support and serve as Cristo Rey Atlanta’s temporary CFO.
“This kind of program is a game changer,” Hansen said. “It was in Chicago, in Indianapolis, and it will be in Atlanta. These are kids that would be in gangs or not able to get a good education and it’s just an awesome thing. All of the Cristo Rey schools are great examples of the impact we can have on our community.”
Marist committed more than 600 lockers, furniture, smart boards, lab equipment, books, and the use of its human resources software, which Hansen oversaw. It offered to have Cristo Rey students fulfill their work-study at the school, and some of its staff, including Hansen, volunteered to serve as mentors for Cristo Rey students.
Other independent schools quickly joined the effort. Woodward donated a classroom set of notebook computers, and Vice President of Finance Kelly Sanderson, a Leadership Woodward classmate of Hipp, was so impressed with the concept that she helped Woodward pledge two 14-passenger buses and two 56-passenger buses to support the school’s work-study program. Woodward also provided parts for the buses and one year’s worth of mechanical support. Fred Assaf, Head of Pace Academy, heard about Cristo Rey Atlanta through his church, the Cathedral of Christ the King. Pace was in the midst of a massive construction project, demolishing its original 1961 Upper School to make way for a new 75,000-square-foot Upper School that doubled its space. Assaf offered Cristo Rey all the furniture — desks, chairs, lockers, equipment — from their previous school. Also, The Howard School in Atlanta offered use of their athletic fields and gymnasium for Cristo Rey’s athletics programs.
Area churches and businesses also stepped up efforts to assist. Twenty-six metro Atlanta parishes have offered support, with specific churches offering volunteers, books, and sack lunches. The children’s clothing company Carter’s Inc., which was vacating its downtown offices, gave the school all their office furniture. Ridgeview Institute gave the school 42 computers, and Meru Networks, based in Sunnyvale, CA, provided the school with free wireless and network support.
Forty-one of Atlanta’s top corporations came on board, each taking on four students from the school to participate in a work-study program. They included UPS Capital, The Coca-Cola Company, Delta Air Lines, Invesco, Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory Healthcare, SunTrust Banks, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Bank of America, Southern Company, and more. Together the businesses supported 42 percent of the school’s budget, around $1.2 million.
Leadership for such a venture was also critical. Fitzgerald and other leaders on the school’s board began looking for a president and principal for Cristo Rey Atlanta. With the help of the provinces of New England, New York, and Maryland, they were sent Jesuit Father Jim Van Dyke. Van Dyke was on track to head a Jesuit school in New York and had more than 25 years experience in education, as well as governance, coaching, retreat work and more. For the position of president, the school needed someone with ample connections, a deep commitment to the Cristo Rey mission, and stellar fund-raising skills. They identified Deacon Bill Garrett. Garrett served at All Saints Church in Dunwoody, and was the former president of the Mercy Care Foundation, a medical outreach program to the homeless and others without insurance. Garrett and Van Dyke spent much of 2013 visiting parishes and businesses all over Atlanta. At wealthy parishes they would ask for support, while at parishes in low-income areas they would recruit students.
On August 4, 2014, the collaborative work of independent schools, businesses, churches, government, and non-profits culminated in the opening of Cristo Rey Atlanta. At 7:30 a.m. in the heart of downtown Atlanta on West Peachtree Street, 160 freshman students from as far south as Peachtree City and north to Lawrenceville, filed into its two-story building to begin their four-year journey toward a better life. The school is the 28th in the Cristo Rey Network, and its leaders plan to grow its student body to around 500 in the next five years, or as physical space will allow.
Looking back at the sequence of events that allowed Cristo Rey to come to Atlanta, those who participated offer a number of reflections. Hipp believes it is important to follow one’s passions and be willing to pursue big dreams. He also says you have to do the work, and put in the hours required to make things happen. In mobilizing talent and gaining support, Garrett says it is important to identify points of self-interest, and to learn how to present the value of a program. The need for a college preparatory school for low-income students in Atlanta was not difficult to sell. However, the pitch to corporations was more complex. These businesses were taking a risk allowing unskilled high school students into their offices. Garrett made the argument that with Cristo Rey, they would not just be writing a check, they would be enriching students’ lives, and able to see the results of their charity first-hand.
Van Dyke adds that the work-study element of Cristo Rey makes school highly relevant to its students and is something all schools should consider. “So often school takes place in a vacuum and apart from the skills and requirements of the workplace,” said Van Dyke. “Singularly, education is not simply something that takes place in the classroom and something that feeds the mind. I like to think that we are feeding the ambitions of our students and giving them tools to make that a reality.”Cristo Rey’s students are the best proof of its impact. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, (NSC) for the graduating classes of 2008-2012, 90 percent were enrolled in college. Also for the graduating classes of 2005-2007, 42 percent have graduated college. The numbers are double the amount of graduates, as compared to students from their local public school.
President Bill Garrett summed up the school’s mission and incredible support in an article in The Georgia Bulletin:
For the past 200-plus years, Catholic education, particularly for immigrants, low-income families and the marginalized of our communities, has been a point of great accomplishment for people of our Church in this great nation . . . Cristo Rey uses a successful, proven educational and financial model that allows the Catholic Church to continue the ministry to our Atlanta community. We take the journey not alone but with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the active engagement and participation of so very many. We are Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, the school that works in the heart of Atlanta.
The Cristo Rey Network includes 28 schools, in 18 states, and 27 cities across the country. The schools teach more than 9,000 students, 96 percent of which are students of color. The average family income of a Cristo Rey student is $34,000 a year. The school also relies heavily on its roughly 1,800 corporate partners who participate in Cristo Rey’s work-study program, which in turn pays more than half of each student’s tuition.
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