By William C. Singleton III
For the Birmingham Times
On August 8, Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School will open its doors in a new facility and a new community. After nearly 75 years in Ensley, the school and its students will call the former Center Street Middle School and the Titusville community home.
“We’re excited about the move,” said Principal Bethany Knighten. “I think the students will be excited by the freshness and newness, and I think they’ll be expecting more consistency and higher expectations with their learning.”
School officials look forward to 230 students in grades 9 through 12 this upcoming school year, compared with 205 students last year.
The acquisition of the former Center Street Middle School gives Holy Family more space for academics, provides greater security, offers closer proximity to its corporate work-study partners, and allows the opportunity to consolidate its program under one roof, school officials said.
The new campus will include a digital media center, science labs, training centers for workforce development, and improved athletic facilities.
Preparations for opening day included about $700,000 in renovations, such as painting classrooms and hallways; removing student lockers to create more space for benches; and remodeling classrooms, office areas, and the cafeteria, said Jon Chalmers, president of Holy Family.
A Good Fit
Founded in 1943 as Holy Family High School, the school in 2007 joined the Cristo Rey Network, which is comprised of 35 high schools nationwide that provide an innovative academic curriculum for low-income families and students who normally cannot afford a college-preparatory education.
Holy Family’s student population is 80 percent African American and 20 percent Latino. The average family pays about $30 a month toward tuition, which totals more than $10,000 a year, Chalmers said. The remaining tuition cost is picked up by donors, the Alabama Accountability Act scholarships, and the school’s work-study program.
“We don’t expect financial engagement from the family to be a barrier for a student to be here,” Chalmers said.
Two-thirds of Holy Family’s students live in the city of Birmingham, and the rest are from adjoining municipalities. The admission process includes essays submitted by potential students and their parents, student transcripts, and interviews with staff members, Knighten said.
A committee then decides if “[Holy Family] would be a good fit for that student and whether the student would be a good fit for us,” she said.
The Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School curriculum features a work-study program. Students from each grade level spend one day a week working at an area company: seniors on Tuesdays, juniors on Wednesdays, sophomores on Thursdays, and freshman on Fridays. The school uses buses to transport students to their jobs. The new school being closer to downtown Birmingham puts students nearer to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), St. Vincent’s Hospital, Hoar Construction, Vulcan Materials, the YMCA, the Birmingham Public Library, Samford University, and other student employers, Chalmers said.
“With 25 percent of our students out working in corporations and industries, we were looking to improve commute times from the school to their jobs,” he said.
The new school — going to 68,000 square feet from 49,000 — also will be nearly double the size of Holy Family’s previous campus which occupied five separate buildings along a mile-long corridor in Ensley. The separated campus in Ensley posed a safety problem with students crossing busy streets to get from building to building, Chalmers said. Also, the lack of a cafeteria area left the school no room to prepare lunches, forcing the school to hire a catering company for meals that also tapped parents’ wallets and pocketbooks.
“Parents were consistently asking why we didn’t have free and reduced-price lunches,” Chalmers said. “We couldn’t serve families that way because we didn’t have a cafeteria that was up to code. Moving here provides that opportunity for us.”
In choosing a new site, school officials were mindful to consider an area with a rich history similar to that of the Ensley community, with its storied Tuxedo Junction neighborhood. Of course, availability, location, and price were considerations, too. It just so happened that Center Street Middle School, which closed three years ago, became available and satisfied all the factors that made the property appealing, Chalmers said.
Titusville, a neighborhood nestled between UAB to the east and Elmwood Cemetery to the west, launched the careers of luminaries like former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and renowned educator and University of Maryland, Baltimore County, President Freeman Hrabowski.
“This opportunity emerged six months ago,” Chalmers said. “When we found the Titusville location, it really checked all the boxes. It’s close to our students, it’s closer to almost all of our corporate work-study partners, and it’s in a historic neighborhood that we very much enjoy and appreciate. Our board jumped in and seized the opportunity.”
The school’s board purchased the Center Middle School campus from the Birmingham City Schools system for $1.2 million, Chalmers said.
Even with favorable location factors, the academic program is at the heart of Holy Family’s move.
“Our new school will give us an opportunity to provide science labs, which will enable students to do [experiments] similar to [those being done in] college science labs,” said Knighten, who prepares students with the mindset of high achievement by calling them “scholars.”
“I call them scholars because we have high expectations for them. They’re on the way to being successful throughout college. They’re our precollege scholars. They’re so wonderful and achieve so many things,” she said, adding that the previous graduating class totaled “more than $2.4 million in scholarships.”
New School Year
This summer, Holy Family senior Justin Coleman, 17, and three of his classmates braved the sweltering heat to paint walls, strip old material from walls and ceilings, move furniture, and do anything else not requiring professional contractors. Coleman said he and his friends gladly volunteered because they see it as an investment into their education.
“I feel like I had to give something back, to do something for them,” he said. “The old school will always have a place in my heart because the old school has done so much for me. But this is my way to contribute to the new school, prepare for my senior year, and do what I can to get the school ready for a new school year.”
Holy Family Facts
- Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School
- 1832 Center Way S., Birmingham, AL 35205
- Independent Catholic School, part of the Cristo Rey Network of 35 schools nationwide
- 100 percent college acceptance
- 80 percent college enrollment
- Corporate work-study program with more than 50 partners
- Students three times more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree by age 24
- Contact info: hfcristorey.org, 205-787-9937
Source: Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School.