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Physics teacher Megan Leider and her student, 15-year-old Jade Walker sit in their classroom alone working on an assignment Tuesday afternoon at the newly-opened Christ the King College Preparatory School in Austin.

They’re actually sitting in the Benjamin Banneker room, named after the famed black mathematician and scholar. Each classroom in the building, located at 5088 W. Jackson, is named after either a famous black American or a saint in the Jesuit faith. According to Rev. Christopher Devron, the school’s president, staff there want the kids to see and experience cultural all around them. Just outside the building on the walls facing the parking lot and – on this particular wintry day – snow-covered green space, are murals depicting Jesus Christ and the cross.

Christ the King, part of a national group of Jesuit schools operated by the Cristo Rey Network, including one in Pilsen, is a faith-based institution but accepts students from all faiths. Located on site of the former
Resurrection Parish at Jackson and Leamington, it’s the first Catholic school built on the West Side in 85 years. But for the last year or so, students and staff conducted classes at temporary site in Austin while their campus was being built. On Monday, students and staff were finally able to go to their new school.

“It feels nice to have our own school,” said sophomore Toni Ward.

“There is definitely a lot more room here,” added sophomore Shavelle Pryler.

At their previous on Washington and LeClair at the Circle Rock campus, there was no space for lockers, so students kept their books and other items in bins. But there are plenty of lockers on the second and third floors of the building. The building, covering 100,000 square feet on three levels and costing $28 million, has that “brand new” feeling.

The closed-campus high school can house 600 students but currently has 162 freshmen and sophomores enrolled. A class level is added each year. There are science labs and computer labs, an art room, and music studio with empty cages needing to be filled with musical instruments. The large library has only a few books but is expected to be fully stocked. There’s also a student lounge, the “heart” of the building, say the kids. The gymnasium, itself costing $8 million with a seating capacity of 1200, will also double as the school’s auditorium – it has a stage just left and below the score board. The basketball and football team are called the Gladiators. The school’s colors are maroon and gold. Being a faith-based school, the building has a large 250-seat chapel for mass and daily prayer.

Devron noted that being a faith-based institution appealed to many of the school’s parents. The reverend himself is impressed with the school.

“There’s noting I don’t like about the building,” he said. “The most important thing I like is what it says to our students, that we care about them and their future.”

As for the students’ dress code – which is mandatory – it’s business attire; shirts and ties for the boys and buttoned up blouses for the girls. The dress code is also part of the school’s jobs curriculum for students. They spend five days out of the month at various worksites in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. They’re pay helps cover their tuition.

Fifteen-year-old Kemett Hayes, a sophomore, works for MB Financial Bank in the suburbs in their accounting department. He recalled recently having to count $3 million as part of an audit of another financial institution.

“That was more money than I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “I like the fact that I deal with money. I didn’t actually count it myself; I used a money-machine. I felt like I was on Deal or No Deal.”

Hayes says he wants to Georgia Tech University. In fact, the students talk to their counselors at the start of their freshman year concerning colleges they’d like to attend.

Devron said the building will be open to the community, particularly the gym, library and computer labs. And the school has events lined up for this spring, including a spring Homecoming Dance and home basketball games.

“We want to be a part of the community and we want the community to feel that this is there school,” Devron said.

Robert Felton contributed to this story.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com