Catalyst School begins new era

Austin school starts academic year with the launch of a junior high

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Nearly 200 students convened outside Austin's Catalyst School-Circle Rock to celebrate both the start of a new academic year and the opening of their new affiliate school.

The new Catalyst School, located at 5628 W. Washington, officially opened on Tuesday following a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The students dressed in green polo shirts and khaki slacks and held a yellow, white or green balloon during the ceremony.

Catalyst Principal Sala Sims called the launch, "a new era of education on the Westside of Chicago," just prior to slicing the red bow surrounding the school's front doors.

The building will house junior high school students in grades five through eight while the adjacent Catalyst facility at 5608 W. Washington will continue to serve kindergarten-through-fourth graders.

The development of the school began in October 2008. It is collaboration between Catalyst Schools, Rock Church and the Chicago Public Schools to expand the campus.

"There was a concern about whether there would be enough room at the current school to accommodate the new student body for the next few years," said Abraham Washington, senior pastor of Rock Church.

"This really was a labor of love. We got architectural help and financial assistance from church members and community volunteers to assist in the effort to assure that the school opened in time for the semester to begin."

The building was previously home to Sienna Catholic High School, which closed its doors in the late 1970's. The property remained abandoned from 1980 to the opening of the new Catalyst School.

"As you can imagine after being closed for almost 30 years, the building needed a lot of work," said Amy Soudan, project manager of the construction effort.

"It had been severely vandalized on the inside and the walls were crumbling; however, the foundation was terrific. It was a solidly built facility and that allowed the renovation to run a lot smoother than it might have."

Soudan said that the opening of the new school is a triumph for the community as it serves as an example of what can happen when a group of like-minded individuals commit to an effort to improve a community.

The renovation on the building began in March 2009, and the vast majority of the work as been completed.

Nevertheless, while the new school begins classes this week, there is still work that must be done before the construction is fully completed.

The 1,000-seat auditorium is still under construction at the school. The auditorium, which is expected to hold performing arts events, will, according to President of Catalyst Schools Gordon Hannon, "be one of the most exemplary theaters in Chicago."

The cafeteria has also not been completed yet; therefore, the students will have lunch at the new school's warming kitchen until it is finished. There is no word yet on when either will be completed.

Both Austin-area Catalyst School's are part of the estimated $8 million, three phase project that began four years ago with the development and opening of the Catalyst School on Central and Washington in 2006.

"When we complete the new school it will effectively complete the third phase of this project," said Soudan. "Five and half million dollars has already been used to get to this point. We are excited about completing the school, which will hopefully be within the next year."

"The Catalyst Schools are deeply influenced by the San Miguel Model Schools," said Hannon.

"They emphasize longer school days (7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.), strong focuses on literacy and mathematics and tracking the progress of students for four years following their graduation to assure that they have the assistance they may require afterward, either seeking employment or searching for a college."

Addressing the students standing in the blocked off street, Sims encouraged them to recite the school formula for success: "Think we can + Work hard = Success."

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