Andy Stith describes a phone call he received in 2005 from Sr. Vickie Perkins as “a life-changing moment.”
Her religious community, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kan., was going to sponsor a Cristo ReyHigh School in Kansas City, Kan., and she asked him if he was interested in becoming its development director.
Stith had taught third grade at Holy Name School in Kansas City – a school he termed “an under-resourced school” – following his 2001 graduation from Marquette University. He taught while simultaneously earning his master’s in education through the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance in Catholic Education program. After two years, he concluded he wanted to remain in education “but not in the classroom.”
He became advancement director at Notre Dame High School in Niles, Ill., putting to use his MU communications major and business minor. And then he got that call.
“I never thought I’d go back to Kansas City,” Stith told the Catholic Herald. “I was aware of it (Cristo Rey), but I wasn’t really aware of the mission of Cristo Rey.”
In accepting Sr. Vickie’s invitation, he answered the founding president with a question.
“My question for sister was whether the students I taught in third grade could come to this high school. If they could come, then I was willing to go down and help build it. I knew that there weren’t many options for them because they didn’t have the financial means to afford them,” Stith said. “If I could be part of creating something special and unique, something that would really help them, then I was open to that calling, that vocation, that invitation.”
That openness led him to become the feasibility study director for a Milwaukee Cristo Rey High School in 2012. That study, funded by Marquette University, concluded that a Cristo Rey High School was sustainable in Milwaukee.
That openness also moved him to apply for the presidency of the school, and to accept it when it was offered. The news of the founding of Cristo Rey Milwaukee, and his hiring, were announced at a press conference Wednesday, April 23, at the school’s West Milwaukee site – the former St. Florian Grade School – where he insisted the announcement be made.
The school will become the 29th college prep academy in the Cristo Rey network. In making the announcement about the new school, Jesuit Fr. Tom Lawler, provincial of the Wisconsin Province, noted the school will be the first ministry of the new province of Midwest Jesuits, is the first Cristo Rey school to partner with a Jesuit university – Marquette – and will be the first coeducational Jesuit secondary school in Milwaukee.
The school is scheduled to open in fall 2015 with a class of 100 freshmen with plans to add a grade each year until the school reaches 400 to 500 students.
Experience a factor
Stith, 34, said that having been involved with the Cristo Rey start-up in Kansas City helped him direct the study for Milwaukee.
“It was huge because I had hindsight as no other feasibility has been done by anybody that’s been involved in a previous start-up of a Cristo Rey school,” he said. “I could bring the lens and perspective of someone who’s seen it from its very infant days through three graduating classes, very quickly hone in on the essential conversations that needed to take place.”
That experience also helped him as he considered whether or not to apply for the presidency.
“Because I was expected to run this school effectively, I knew what I would need to feel to be a president of this school. I wasn’t there … I had to really evaluate what I brought to the table in terms of what I knew a Cristo Rey school would need to launch successfully,” he said.
“Over time I met a lot of great people and I developed my own viewpoints on what the needs are of the urban community in Milwaukee educationally and I grew in my confidence to be able to do this job.”
Jesuit Fr. Douglas J. Leonhardt, co-chair of the Cristo Rey sponsorship committee – a requirement for establishing a Cristo Rey school is that it must have the sponsorship of a religious community that is involved in education, said that one of the criteria for the presidency that surfaced for the search committee was that the person had to have experience with Cristo Rey.
“To not know much about Cristo Rey puts them on a huge learning curve,” he said.
‘Journey of faith’
Stith noted there were “a lot of prayers, a lot of people offering prayers” as the school prepared to launch.
“When you do this type of work it’s almost as though you feel the Holy Spirit present because there are things that happen that aren’t in your control, and you recognize that, and you thank God for it,” he said. “And you know you’re doing the right thing.”
Stith was aware during the feasibility study of the things he had to accomplish, “that I could do something about, but I knew ultimately it was in God’s hands and it happened.”
He credits Ann, his wife of nearly nine years, with walking through the process with him – first in Kansas City, to which they moved from Illinois a month after getting married, and now Milwaukee.
“I believe it is very much a journey of faith, and yes, my wife has to believe in it as much, or more, as she’s the one trusting that this is all going to work out, that our family will be supported,” Stith said. “It’s something she believes in as much as I do.”
The couple have four children – Elizabeth 7; Mary, 5; Thomas, 3; and Anthony, 4 months. They are members of St. John Vianney Parish, Brookfield.
‘Transformative impact’ on students’ lives
During remarks at the press conference, Stith told the gathering he was “passionate” about Cristo Rey because he has seen the “transformative impact” it has on students’ lives.
“I know there are more student stories of hope yet to be written. Yet, there is much challenging work to do, and, no doubt, our journey will take unexpected twists and turns,” he said. “(But) I am confident that, with your support, we can create a high school that is worthy of educating the young hearts and minds of students, a high school that builds upon the Catholic and Jesuit mission in Milwaukee, a high school that offers young people a chance to develop their God-given potential, so that they are empowered to write the inspirational endings to their own stories.”