Cristo Rey Breaks Ground on New School
Voucher high school will move from suburban West Milwaukee to Clarke Square.
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School broke ground on its $33 million, 100,000-square-foot school at 1818 W. National Ave. Wednesday morning.
The new school, designed to support the quickly growing student body, is intended as a permanent home for the four-year-old Catholic high school. Approximately 800 students, faculty, parents and community partners gathered in a large tent to celebrate the groundbreaking, which included school cheerleaders welcoming guests and a ceremonial beam signing.
The campus design marks a departure from a late 2017 plan to repurpose the former Pick ‘n Save grocery store on the site. The school was the second entity to reverse course on reusing the former store with e-commerce retailer Wantable also dropping its plans to salvage the building in 2017. Over the past months the school, through general contractor CG Schmidt, has worked to demolish the 112,000-square-foot building and clear the site for its new home. In addition to the flexibility afforded by designing from scratch, this solution also allows the school to avoid investing in a structure that had a failing roof, support structure and foundation just two decades into its life.
Bray Architects, located just a mile to the east, is designing the new facility, which includes everything from science labs and a large gymnasium to a soccer field with stands and a substantial performing arts space.
Mike Giffhorn, co-chair of the school’s capital campaign to fund the new facility, praised the generosity of the many donors who have pledged over $11 million to date. The school is still seeking to raise $8 million to avoid opening with a debt burden. Giffhorn and others also praised the support they’ve received from the neighborhood. “Bear with us because when this school is done I think you’re going to like us,” said Giffhorn of the 7.5-acre construction site. Stith singled out area Alderman Jose G. Perez, Journey House CEO Dr. Michele Bria, United Community Center executive director Ricardo Diaz and Clarke Square Neighborhood Initiative executive director Ian Bautista for their support in his remarks.
Junior John Jimenez was the only student to speak at the half-hour ceremony, telling the audience that he looked forward to walking or biking to school from his Clarke Square home and enjoying all that the new facility has to offer. “I just want to show up to school and bring that joy, bring that strength to everyone else,” said Jimenez.
Robert W. Baird & Co. Chief Investment Officer Mary Ellen Stanek told the audience that her organization looks forward to hiring even more Cristo Rey students as part of the school’s signature work-study program. Students spend one day per week with one of what Stith said is now over 70 employers, with their pay going to cover tuition. “We are behind this school and these students 150 percent,” said Stanek.
Instead of the standard dirt toss with silver shovels, attendees at the event were allowed to sign two steel beams that will be placed into the building’s structure.
Cristo Rey’s Milwaukee school is part of a national network of 37 schools. The first opened in Chicago in 1996, with the Milwaukee school opening in 2015. The school, currently operating in a 45,000-square-foot facility at 1215 S. 45th St. in West Milwaukee, reported having 324 students in early 2018 and officials today announced the roster at 398. The new building is designed to accommodate up to 500 students.
Student tuition is funded through three primary sources. The school is a participant in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, with the school receiving a $8,400 voucher for each qualifying student. That voucher payment from the state and city is supplemented by donations and a unique student work program. The work-study program, which all students are required to participate in, redirects the pay the student would have received towards their tuition. The school reports the average household income for Cristo Rey students is $32,500.
Father Bill Johnson, vice president of strategic growth for the school, said in 2018 that the Notre Dame School of Milwaukee at 1420 W. Scott St. provides the greatest number of students to Cristo Rey. Moving to 18th and National will put the two schools within a couple blocks of each other.
Cristo Rey reports that 95 percent of its 2019 graduating class went on to pursue a post-secondary degree.
The new school will be property-tax exempt. A tax-incremental financing district used to support the construction of the Pick ‘n Save store was closed in 2015 following the repayment of associated debt. Cristo Rey’s financing plan relies on the use of federal New Market Tax Credits to fund a portion of the complex’s construction.
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