Bustling along Downtown Atlanta’s sidewalks, uniformed high school students can now be spotted among businessmen. You may think the business professionals are headed for the office and the students for the classroom, but at Cristo Rey that’s not always the case.

Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School began its fourth academic year at a new campus on Piedmont Avenue. The school’s presence in the central business district is fitting for their work-study structure.

“Being among the office buildings and workers is a great benefit for the school and students. Our students are highly visible. We call them ‘walking billboards’ because they expose the Downtown area to our school,” said President Bill Garrett.

The campus is the seven-story former Oxford Industries Headquarters. Four floors are dedicated to classrooms, one floor of offices, one floor for kitchen and cafeteria and half a floor for faculty lounge. Cristo Rey converted the two story parking deck to house a “gymnatorium,” or gymnasium and auditorium, with parking underneath. The campus will be dedicated on Jan. 30 when all renovations have been completed.

The building was donated by its owner Jim Cummings,  and Cristo Rey managed to raise $25 million and renovate the 60-year-old building in 18 months. “We were told it was impossible,” Garrett said. “Difficult, yes. Impossible, no. We did it.”

Cristo Rey is one of 32 schools in the country that serves low income students, those that qualify for free or reduced lunch, and requires all students to work for all four years of their high school experience at a company. However, these are not your typical, part-time jobs for teenagers. Cristo Rey has 135 work-study sponsors, ranging from Coca-Cola and UPS to smaller companies, that offset 70 percent of the cost of educating the students.

This year, Cristo Rey had 55 new companies sign on. “We really do have the who’s who of corporate Atlanta on our list,” Garrett said. “Yet some of the small businesses are a great placement because the kids get much more individualized attention than they might in a bigger company.”

Cristo Rey students work five full days a month and many can now walk to over 20 major companies Downtown or take MARTA from the Peachtree Center MARTA station.

Since everything is new, the Cristo Rey student body of 540 students has some of the latest technology in their classrooms. According to Garrett, they have one of the best chemistry labs in the state. The school was recently awarded the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Excellence in Education award this summer.

Joe Barker, director of admissions, said Cristo Rey was about 60 percent Hispanic, 35 percent African American and 5 perecent Asian and other in the past years, but the demographic is starting to balance.

“One of my objectives coming into this role was to attract more African American students, and specifically African American young men,” Barker said. He and student ambassadors recruited at middle schools in DeKalb like Wesley International Academy and Freedom Middle School, as well as the Carver Family YMCA. Barker even went on the Rashad Richey Show on News-Talk 1380 WAOK to get the word out.

“I’m looking for a good academic fit and a student who is willing to work and get out there in a corporate environment,” Barker said. “But quite often it’s the student ambassadors with us that sell the program as they talk about their experiences. It’s so much more genuine coming from them.”

Senior Jarintzi Sanchez said that while school officially started on Aug. 7, the freshman started back on July 24 to attend Cristo Rey’s version of a crash course for working in the business world.

“The school prepares us for two weeks with Business Training Institute in which they instill in us values and prepare us for just about every situation that would help us in the workplace, from how to make a first impression to how to work programs on the computer,” Sanchez said.

“During my first year I learned that even business people way up there are just people,” said senior Bryce Lawson. “They are not that different from high school students. When you start making connections with them you realize they are just people.”

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