Blazing a trail in Waukegan: New school to open Feb. 13, 2018 raising the bar and lifting hope for area youth

A flurry of construction is underway to put the final touches on the transformation of a once vacant K-Mart big-box into a gateway of hope for the City of Waukegan. On Feb. 13, 2018, 400 Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep students, faculty and staff will begin classes at their new progressive high school at 3106 Belvidere Road thanks to the $18.5 million adaptive reuse project led by JGMA architects and the McShane Construction Company.

While this far northern Illinois community represents only 15 percent of the population in Lake County, it is home to 75 percent of the poverty. Gang violence and drug activity make frequent headlines, and educational challenges are many. Only 24 percent of high school students are considered ready for college, according to the Illinois Report Card 2016-17.

But for teens like Karolyna Padilla, 16, and her seven siblings, Cristo Rey is raising the bar for them to be among the first generation in their family to go to and through college. Since it was opened in 2004, three of members of the Padilla family have graduated from CRSM and gone on to receive bachelor’s degrees and pursue graduate studies from Georgetown, Columbia in New York, Lake Forest College and Grand Canyon University.

Their path and the growing influence of CRSM in Waukegan and North Chicago underscore the growing ranks of CRSM alumni earning one-out-of-three new bachelor’s degrees in Waukegan and North Chicago.

“Cristo Rey St. Martin has been a positive light guiding our young men and women to brighter futures,” said Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham. “I am proud of the work Cristo Rey has done and the opportunities their beautiful new campus brings Waukegan.”

“This is a milestone moment for us,” said Preston Kendall, president of Cristo Rey St. Martin. “Almost six years ago we embarked on a bold and daring plan to grow enrollment from 240 to over 400. We have a lot of really talented young people who come from very hard-working families who need help. We believe education is the door to those opportunities.” The school has outgrown its current leased space at the former St. Joseph Parish complex, a dilapidated former grade school on a two-acre property comprised of less than 30,000 square feet on the south side of Waukegan.

Part of a national network of 32 schools, CRSM was the first Catholic high school to open in 50 years in Lake County with 95 students in 2004. The school exclusively serves families with limited financial resources. Eighty percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The average family income of the students enrolled is $38,277 and the average family size is 4.4.

Now, with a more visible presence at the gateway to Waukegan, the new building will play a vital role in enhancing the school’s culture of high academic expectations and an innovative corporate work study program. The mission – getting students to and through college, is in action:

• $25.7 million in college scholarships awarded to Class of 2017
• 98 percent of students accepted to bachelor’s programs
• Colleges include: Boston College, Brandeis, Loyola University Chicago, Marquette, Johns Hopkins, Columbia University, Georgetown and a graduate program scholarship at Cambridge in England
• Named one of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools” by The Washington Post for six consecutive years.

Designed by Chicago architecture firm JGMA, its founder and president, Juan Gabriel Moreno, AIA, and team of award-winning architects share a similar mission to serve diverse neighborhoods and champion positive change.

The renovated building will feature 18 classrooms, three science laboratories, administrative offices, a cafeteria and a library commons area, together totaling 53,000 square feet (roughly half) of the vacant retail complex. Future phases are likely to add more laboratories, fine arts facilities, a gym, chapel and additional athletic amenities.

JGMA’s conversion of this empty Kmart underscores the changes happening in many of America’s outlying towns and suburbs. Many big-box stores across the country, which have closed and are vacant, have begun to be redeveloped. In a few notable examples, large stores have been converted into city libraries, fitness centers and go-kart tracks. These have achieved various levels of success. Cristo Rey will arguably be one of the most ambitious.

One of the first and foremost challenges was transforming that big-box stigma and it’s not-so-appealing suburban surroundings – seas of parking lots, strip malls, and fast-food joints, into a sprawling 120,000-square-foot cohesive state-of-the-art educational hub.

The most dramatic of the changes is infusing light into an artificially lit box with no windows. Two large cuts were taken out of the roof and several glass storefronts were added to the façade of the building, bringing light inside and interrupting the visual form and giving it a completely new appearance and character.

Cristo Rey blends a rigorous academic preparation and significant professional work experience through its Corporate Work Study Program. Students spend one day every week, plus an extra day monthly, working for the more than 80 Lake County companies which include: Abbott, Baxter International Inc., Cardinal Health, Discover Financial Services, Hollister Inc., North Shore University Health System and Takeda Pharmaceutical Company.