West Side to get first new Catholic school in decades

The city's zoning commission today cleared the way for construction of the West Side's first new Catholic school in 80 years.

The Christ the King Jesuit Preparatory School, scheduled for groundbreaking in June, will cater to economically disadvantaged students who will participate in a work/study program underwritten in large part by corporate contributions and fees.

The 10,000 square-foot, three-story high school, at 5058 West Jackson Blvd. in the Austin neighborhood, will share a site at Resurrection Campus with the Chicago Jesuit Academy, a middle school that serves students in grades 5 through 8.

The school is scheduled to open its doors in August 2009, at a time when many Catholic schools around the nation are closing their doors.

The centerpiece of the new school is the Cristo Rey network, which provides a Catholic, college preparatory education to economically disadvantaged children. It is centered around  a work study program that enables students to finance their education while gaining work experience.

The program was first launched in Chicago in 1996, with Cristo Rey High School in Pilsen. According to Preston Kendall, vice president for corporate internship at CTK, the concept spread quickly from there.

After inquiries from three schools, the Gates Foundation contacted Cristo Rey and agreed to help them set up a network office.

"They said, we don't normally give to faith-based schools, but this is very intriguing," says Kendall.

There are 19 schools across the country that now employ this model, said Kendall. In addition to CTK, this summer will see the opening of Cristo Rey schools in Brooklyn and  Detroit.

Students at the new school will gain work experience through a corporate internship program in which teams of four students share a full-time job. Corporate partners who team with the school pay a fee that covers 70 to 75 percent of the tuition cost. Financial aid is to be provided for families that can't afford the remaining $200 per month.

"What we're trying to do is broaden horizons beyond the neighborhood," Kendall says. "Many of these kids in Austin haven't been outside of Austin and haven't had the opportunity to experience the outside world."

Companies that have signed so far include McGuire Engineers, O'Keefe, Ashenden, Lyons & Ward, Advocate Healthcare and Loyola Medical Center. Students will be doing work similar to what college interns do, such as copying blueprints, data input, delivering mail, filing patient records, and transporting patients.

"We'll have them working alongside lawyers, doctors, engineers; a lot of people who've gone to college," says Kendall. "We're trying to change the question these kids face from, 'are you going to college?' to 'where are you going to college?'"

Although the Austin neighborhood has 10,000 high school-age children, only 5,000 seats are available in area high schools, according to Kendall.

The school is focusing most of its recruiting efforts on public and private grade schools in the Austin community, but is also drawing students from Humboldt Park and Garfield Park. There are no admissions exams. Instead, admissions staff will look at grades, behavior, recommendations and personal statements.

Kendall said the school has been warmly welcomed into the community.

Rev. Marshall Hatch, senior pastor at the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield, is among a coalition of ministers who look forward to the program's launch.

"It's going to be an excellent educational opportunity and young people will truly get a college prep education," says Hatch.

Construction costs for the school are estimated at $24 million, with $6 million in seed money needed to get the school up and running, said Kendall. The school is funded entirely through private donations.

So far, the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus has pledged $1 million and anonymous donors have pledged $6 million, said Kendall.

The school is schedule to open doors at its new location in August 2009. In the interim, CTK is conducting classes at Siena High School in the Austin neighborhood.

LaVetta Dixon contributed to this report.