A revitalizing school for disadvantaged kids repurposes building, turns parking into gym

In downtown Atlanta, Georgia, an inspiring “Restoration Economy” story is unfolding.

It combines the repurposing and renovation of an old commercial building; educating low-income students to restore their futures; revitalizing the future of the ooverty-stricken neighborhoods that these students come from; and the activation of dead space by putting a gym on top of a multi-story parking lot.

The result is the answer to a lot of prayers.

During the summer of 2015, Bill Garrett was losing sleep. Garrett, the president of Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, a private school that serves only low-income students, knew the institution was quickly outgrowing its Midtown location.

Garrett threw a Hail Mary. He asked Jim Cumming, an Atlanta developer whom he recently met at a dinner party, to donate the seven-story former Oxford Industries building to the school.

Cumming’s initial response to giving away the building he purchased in 2013 for $2.5 million was “Impossible. No way. We will do something. But we are not giving you the building.” He was open to leasing it for $800,000 a year, but Cristo Rey couldn’t afford that.

But Cumming, who attended Jesuit schools while growing up in Canada, then reflected on how “people come into life with nothing and leave with nothing” and the importance of making a difference during the time in between. His mind turned to the school’s mission and his meeting with Garrett. “What really is impossible?” he wondered.

Bill Garrett and Jim Cumming.
Photo credit: Mary Saporta.

Later that day he told Garrett that Cristo Rey was the new owner of a prime piece of downtown property. “This was an answer to our prayers,” Garrett says.

After a year and half of fundraising and $20 million in renovations, the school’s new location within clear view of the Connector is now open and well positioned for generations of students to come. A media center, cafeteria, and chapel will occupy the first two floors.

An adjacent parking deck will become a “gymatorium” for practices, physical education, and pep rallies. “We’ve never had a home game,” says Garrett. “So we don’t have that rah-rah spirit of cheering for your own team.” In its previous location the school used a roped-off portion of a parking lot to practice soccer, basketball, and other athletics. “Having a gym is going to be huge.”

The school indirectly helps revitalize neighborhoods far beyond the footprint of the repurposed old Oxford Industries building. Built upon the Cristo Rey Network® model and sponsored by the Jesuits, Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School is having a multifaceted impact upon the Atlanta community and its under-served youth.

  • They prepares students for college success by providing a rigorous college preparatory curriculum fused with authentic experiences in the corporate world.
  • They advocate for education reform, proving that at-risk students are capable of academic and professional success when offered quality, affordable education.
  • Their students are transforming their local communities by breaking the cycle of poverty and violence too often associated with urban settings.

Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School welcomed their first class of 160 students in August of 2014. They have since grown to capacity, with 540 students in grades 9-12 and 50 faculty and staff.

All photos courtesy of Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School.

See full Atalanta Magazine article by Frank Reddy.

See website of Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School.

See 2015 Atlanta Downtown article about donation of building (PDF).

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