The 400 students of Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep in Waukegan used to squeeze themselves into a school built 100 years ago for 200 elementary-age students. While the high school had mobile units, it was still a tight fit. On Feb. 13, the school moved into a newly renovated former Kmart store that offers much more space, large skylights and windows and state-of-the-art equipment. With the exterior painted bright blue and green, the school stands out along a commercial strip of Belvidere Road, where it is surrounded by stores and fast-food restaurants. The interior features the same bright colors and large skylights. “The new space is really big. I like it. It is better than what we had,” said freshman Manny Amaya. “I feel like it is more space for us to learn.” Cristo Rey St. Martin was previously housed in the former St. Joseph School in Waukegan. The school was founded in 2004 under then-Father George Rassas, who was made an auxiliary bishop in 2006, and was the first Catholic high school to open in Lake County in 50 years. It has grown from 95 students the first year to 400 today. Cristo Rey St. Martin, is part of the Chicago-based national Cristo Rey Network established by Jesuit Father John Foley in 1995. Under the unique model, students receive a college-preparatory education and spend five, 8-hour days a month working at local corporations such as Abbot Laboratory and Wintrust Bank, gaining valuable work experience and earning about 60 percent of their tuition. Corporations sponsor students by paying $32,500 for an entry-level position staffed by four students. Also of interest... Humble beginnings Today, Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep in Waukegan has many stories to tell about children from low-income families whom they have launched into college and professional careers. Many of those young people would not have achieved their success without the school. The dream for Cristo Rey St. Martin started in the heart of then-Father George Rassas, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Lake Forest, an affluent parish with sharing parishes in south Waukegan. The parish distributed 10 percent of its income to charities, including scholarships for students of limited means to attend Catholic high schools such as Carmel Catholic in Mundelein and Woodlands Academy in Lake Forest. “We were finding very quickly that kids would get there for a year and realize that they were just a world away from Waukegan,” said Bishop Rassas, who was made an auxiliary bishop in 2006. Bishop Rassas became aware of Cristo Rey High School in Pilsen, which opened under a college prep-work study model and served only low-income students. He spoke to Bishop Gerald Kicanas, then-auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese and vicar for the area (now retired archbishop of Tucson, Arizona) about helping the kids in Waukegan and North Chicago, because their high schools were among the lowest performing in the state. Bishop Kicanas told Bishop Rassas to take the lead in the endeavor. Bishop Rassas then reached out to Cristo Rey, and, after a required feasibility study proved positive, started working with parishioners and volunteers to make it happen. The Archdiocese of Chicago is home to two other Cristo Rey Network Schools: the original Cristo Rey in Pilsen and Christ the King in the city’s Austin neighborhood, both run by the Jesuits. Cristo Rey St. Martin is independent of any religious congregation. The Cristo Rey Network gave startup funds for the school, which was named after St. Martin de Porres because his father was Spanish and his mother was a freed slave. African Americans and Latinos make up a large portion of Waukegan’s population. “We opened at 1 N. Genesee St. with 100 kids — 75 freshman, 20 sophomores,” he said. The school quickly outgrew that space and moved to the campus of St. Joseph School in south Waukegan and took over all available space. “That’s how we got started. We realized we were outgrowing St. Joe’s. The building was just run down. The neighborhood was not safe at all anymore,” Bishop Rassas said. He told the board of directors that they had to find space that was visible, accessible and safe. Enter the old Kmart store. Financing for the new school building at 3106 Belvidere Road came through an $18.5 million capital campaign. Plans are in place to add a gym, chapel and fine arts facilities. The school only serves families with limited financial resources. The average family income is $38,277, with an average of four people in the family. Last year, 98 percent of students were accepted into college. In their area of Waukegan, less than half of the students who start high school finish. Even fewer go on to college. “In our society, young people who come from communities that don’t have a lot of economic wherewithal are thought less of. Society kind of tells them that they don’t have value,” said Cristo Rey St. Martin president Preston Kendall. “What we’re really about is convincing them that they do have value and letting them prove it to themselves.” Cristo Rey St. Martin tries to level the playing field for them. “We’re here to take money out of the equation. These kids are talented. They are our next doctors, our next engineers, our next teachers,” Kendall said. “They don’t know it yet and they are discovering it here.” Kevin Glabowicz graduated from Waukegan High School in 2010 and now teaches history at Cristo Rey St. Martin. “Being from the community, this building is so important to us because we get the opportunity to show a positive light. Too often in the Waukegan community it’s so much negative press and the negative view of the community, that to have this space and to show off these kids who are doing outstanding things is a great opportunity for us,” Glabowicz said. For more information about the school, visit www.cristoreystmartin.org.