Jesuit high school's move is a `letdown'

Cristo Rey says new location is temporary

June 16, 2007|By Julie Turkewitz | Julie Turkewitz,Sun Reporter

The plan for a new Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore's Station North Arts District sparked optimism among community leaders last year.

But their hope turned to disappointment with the news that the school is slated to open a few miles away, at a site in Upper Fells Point.

In September, the city awarded development rights to Cristo Rey so it could renovate an old city school building at 1634 Guilford Ave. But in January, Cristo Rey officials quietly decided to open at a different location at 420 S. Chester St., said Mary Beth Lennon, the school's director of communications.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article about Baltimore's Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Saturday's Maryland section, a photo caption incorrectly stated the name of the Cristo Rey Network and incorrectly listed the title of the Rev. John Swope, who is president of the local school. A display quote with the article misidentified the title of Mary Beth Lennon, the communications director for the local Cristo Rey high school.

Lennon said the school is slated to open this fall, and the change was necessary because more time was needed to renovate the original building, which once housed Mildred Monroe Elementary School.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School will be part of a national cluster of schools, the Cristo Rey Network, designed solely for students from low- to middle-income families in urban areas. The network's first school was founded in 1996 with the goal of "leveling the playing field" for low-income kids, said the Rev. John P. Foley, founder of the first school in Chicago and the network it inspired, who was in the city this week to discuss plans for the fall.

Community leaders say they are upset because Cristo Rey officials did not tell them about the change of plans. City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young learned about the move when a reporter recently phoned him for comment.

"That's a letdown to me and to the community," said Young. "When they have a change, they should have contacted all parties involved. I was under the impression that they were going to open this year. I'm questioning their commitment now."

Cristo Rey officials say the school will eventually move to the Guilford Avenue site, but the move will come after its enrollment grows and it raises more money.

"Guilford Avenue continues to be our first choice," said Lennon. "But we could not have opened it as a functioning school this year."

Young said he and others saw the Jesuit school as a badly needed "anchor" for the arts district, which includes all or part of the Greenmount West, Charles North and Barclay neighborhoods. Now, they question whether the school will ever move to the Guilford Avenue site.

The Jesuit school is negotiating the terms of the contract with the city and still plans to buy the elementary school, said Yolanda Jiggetts, special assistant to the commissioner at the Department of Housing and Community Development.

"There [are] no major changes to the development plan, other than the timeline," Jiggetts said.

The Jesuit school's change of plans is not surprising, said Jiggetts, because a renovation project of the magnitude needed at Mildred Monroe can take years. The original plan to fix up the building and open in fall 2007 was overly "ambitious," said Jiggetts. "It's in pretty bad condition."

Dennis Livingston, who has lived for 10 years in the neighborhood, was also not surprised by the switch. Although the building is "actually very restorable," much has to be done.

The inside of the school has been vandalized, he said. There is broken glass and plywood nailed over windows. Doors will need to replaced and the floor ripped up, among other tasks, he said. "It was clear that they hadn't gotten started yet," he said. "And they weren't going to get started in the fall. And opening at another location seems like a good idea."

The Mildred Monroe building was vacated in 2001, part of city cost-saving efforts. It was used as a set for the 2006 season of The Wire, an HBO show about life in West Baltimore.

Livingston said he had worked for years with other neighbors to have part of the school set up as a community space for education, computer training and nonprofit groups, but when Cristo Rey proposed to buy the property, he supported them.

"The neighborhood likes Cristo Rey," he said. "We would like them to work with us more closely, but we do like the project."

Supporters credit Cristo Rey's success rates -- 96 percent of the 2006 graduating class enrolled in a two- or four-year college -- to its unique approach to raising funds: Students bring in the bulk of the school's budget, about 70 percent, through a work-study program.

This year, 28 Baltimore-area businesses and nonprofits will pay $25,000 for a team of four student workers. Remaining school costs will come from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which recently contributed $6 million to network schools, as well as area donors and student tuition.

The Baltimore school is part of Cristo Rey's expansion from 12 to 19 schools for the 2007-2008 school year. A school will also open this year in Washington, D.C.

The South Chester Street building has four levels, ample space for classes and a large wood-floored gym -- not to mention a view of the Inner Harbor from the library -- and will fit the 120 students Cristo Rey hopes to bring in this fall. But it's not large enough for the school's expected eventual growth to 400-500 students.

The school will lease the building from the Holy Rosary Parish for three years, with the option to renew the lease each year, said Lennon.

Cristo Rey will be the first Catholic high school to open in the city in 30 years. Its opening will bring the total of Baltimore Catholic high schools to 10.

"We're extremely excited about it," said Ronald Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools in Baltimore, of Cristo Rey's setup in Baltimore. "I think its a very innovative approach to education. I think it's life-giving, especially showing our commitment to the city."

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