The Fox Theatre welcomes its Cristo Rey team members during Draft Day 2022. Allan Vella, president and CEO of the Fox Theatre, is in a light blue shirt. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

By Maria Saporta

Excitement filled the gymnasium of the Cristo Rey Atlanta at its downtown campus on Aug. 19.

It was Draft Day — a phenomenon that’s unique to the Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School — one of the most impactful schools in metro Atlanta.

All 485 students attending Cristo Rey participate in a work-study program one day a week. About 136 corporate and civic partners in Atlanta provide the workplaces and/or the funding to pay the students for their year-long work internships.

A full gymnasium of students and corporate teams celebrate Draft Day 2022. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

The employers are as diverse as Atlanta’s workforce ranging from Delta Air Lines, the Home Depot, the Atlanta Mayor’s office, the Gathering Spot, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, law firms, construction firms, banks, finance companies and nonprofits.

Draft Day is when these employers showcase the students who will be working for them during the year. It has all the fanfare of a sports-related Draft Day when athletes are picked for particular teams or colleges.

By the end of Draft Day 2022, the gymnasium was filled with confetti of all colors. Each employer seemed to do their best to impress the students who will be working for them during the academic year.

It started out with Turner Sports/Bleacher Report, which brought out all the stops for their Cristo Rey students including mascots of major Atlanta sports teams.

The draft highlighted 136 entities, some of which had videos, others of which had props, and one — Snellings Walters insurance firm – which brought a marching band to welcome its Cristo Rey team members.

“Draft Day is the culmination of 136 community sponsors coming together to invest in our young people,” said Cristo Rey President Camille Naughton during the ceremony. “This shows the community really supports us.”

Cristo Rey Atlanta President Camille Naughton kicks off Draft Day 2022 on Aug. 19. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Cristo Rey Atlanta has become the poster child among the national network of 38 Cristo Rey schools because of the way employers have embraced the students and the work-study program. It moved to its new building, which was donated by Jim and Janet Cumming, in 2018.

David Fitzgerald, founder and CEO of Fitzco who chairs Cristo Rey Atlanta’s board, said there currently are more work-study slots than there are students at the high school. Because of Covid, enrollment at Cristo Rey did dip a little during the past school year.

Still, the Jesuit school continues to outperform almost all metrics. About half of the student population is Black and about half is Hispanic. About half of the students come from Catholic families, Fitzgerald said.

Cristo Rey is a college-prep high school that only serves students of limited economic means — many of whom will be the first in their family to go to college.

Cristo Rey, now in its ninth year, has an amazing track record. All of its graduates have been accepted to colleges and universities across the country. The Class of 2022 had 124 graduates with 100 percent college acceptance. They will attend 56 colleges in 21 states and the District of Columbia. They also earned more than $17.3 million in scholarships.

Cristo Rey Atlanta’s board chair, David Fitzgerald (in a blue suit) enjoys the fanfare as the Woodruff Foundation’s Russ Hardin (with a purple tie) watches. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)
Cristo Rey Atlanta’s board chair, David Fitzgerald (in a blue suit) enjoys the fanfare as the Woodruff Foundation’s Russ Hardin (with a purple tie) watches. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

What makes the high school so unique is the work-study requirement.

David O’Shea, director of Cristo Rey Atlanta’s Corporate Work Study program, explained that the work experience helps students receive a well-rounded education and helps keep the school in business.

“This program is essential to the funding of this school,” O’Shea said during the Draft Day event. “The funds cover 60 percent of the costs of the school. It is helping change lives.”

Employers pay the students for their work, and those funds help cover the costs of tuition for the students. During their four years attending Cristo Rey, the students will be able to experience four different workplaces — giving them a taste of possible career options.

Usually, a work-study team consists of a freshman, sophomore, junior and senior — each working one day during the week, Tuesday through Friday. Some companies hire more than one team. And some smaller firms may partner with another firm to support a team.

Another show of support is how some angel sponsors will support a team of students at local nonprofits that may not be able to pay the students because of limited funds. In short, putting together a successful work-study program for Cristo Rey’s 485 students is no small feat.

Trees Atlanta brought a tree mascot to welcome its team of Cristo Rey students. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

For example, Graphic Packaging pays for the team working at Trees Atlanta. Angel sponsor Natalie Smith Childs covers the cost of the students working at the Fox Theatre.

Naughton, who has been president since 2020 – succeeding founder Bill Garrett, said the class beginning in July 2023 will be the school’s 10th class.

“We will have our 10th-year gala at the Fox Theatre on 02-24-24,” said Naughton, admiring all the energy on display during the 2022 Draft Day. Cristo Rey hasn’t been able to have such an extravagant Draft Day since 2019.

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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  1. Wow. They say it takes a village, but I guess this is what happens when the village really shows up, and it’s wonderful. What if every school in Atlanta and Georgia, and in particular the least well-resourced public schools, got this type of support?

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