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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 23, 2016 3 years ago

School days

With missions that are closely aligned, an apartment management firm teamed up with a national organization to build a new high school.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Several executives at apartment management firm Avesta were impressed when they heard about the Rev. Steve Ryan's plans for a private high school in Tampa.

Ryan's plan was to turn an abandoned boarding school for boys into a Catholic high school under the national Cristo Rey network, which combines rigorous academics with a work-study program. Cristo Rey schools, with a Catholic, college prep-based curriculum, are known for working with urban, inner-city students from low-income backgrounds and families who have limited education options. Students don't have to be Catholic to attend.

The obstacle: To open, the school had a laundry list of needs including a comprehensive feasibility study; assembling a board of directors; renovating and updating the campus, which had been empty since 2006; and finding corporate partners that could provide job opportunities for students, in addition to financial support.

“We wanted to do something big to help bring the school back to life,” says Dan French, a managing partner in charge of management and administration at Tampa-based Avesta, which manages more than 11,000 apartments in Florida and Texas. “What they wanted to do struck a chord with us.”

French and a few other executives with Avesta, including co-founder Peter Reynolds and Senior Director of Investor Relations Monica McInnis, were some of the early backers of the school. Reynolds met with Ryan in spring 2014, and he brought the project to the Avesta executive team. “It was just like building a business,” says Robert Reynolds, Pete's brother and another Avesta executive. “It was a startup.”

The feasibility study supported the goals of the school, which focuses on setting high expectations for students. On the work-study side, students work with one of the school's corporate partners one day a week. In addition to Avesta, other work-study companies include Amalie Arena, the Bank of Tampa and Coca-Cola Beverages Florida.

The study validated the need for the school. It also helped draw support from some other area business leaders, such as Scott Riley, CEO of Tampa-based payment systems firm Fintech, and Richard Gonzmart, who runs the Columbia Restaurant Group. Riley is on the school's independent board, and Gonzmart is an emeritus director. Those organizations are also part of the work-study program.

The school's campus is in the Mary Help of Christians Center in east Tampa, which is overseen by the Salesians of Don Bosco, the second-largest Catholic religious order in the world.

The school's classrooms needed both a physical and technological upgrade. That's another component where Avesta took a leading role, working with contractors it uses on apartment renovations.

Crews gutted and rebuilt the classrooms, adding smart, interactive whiteboards and desks and other technology, including Wi-Fi. Avesta, says French,
provided at least $150,000 of in-kind donations for that work, which overall was a $1.3 million project. “Avesta has been super supportive of the dream,” says Cristo Rey Tampa Director of Advancement and Public Relations Cynthia Spano. “They have been involved from the beginning.”

The school opened in August with 86 students. Spano expects enrollment to reach at least 125 for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Avesta has maintained a significant presence with the school. Several students work at the company for their work-study hours. French was chairman of the board, a role he recently relinquished to Neal Herman, a real estate investment manager at Avesta. McInnis is board secretary.

Reynolds says Avesta will remain involved in the school long-term, given how its mission melds with Avesta's virtues. That list includes love, faith and humility.
“Almost all the students there are from tough neighborhoods or tough family situations,” says Reynolds. “And they are turning their life around. It changes their perceptions of what's possible.”

Company: Avesta
Organization: Cristo Rey Tampa High School
Giveback: Executives helped launch the high school, which combines rigorous academics with a unique work-study program.
Mission: Company's mission includes creating “more community in the world,” which fits with the high school's mission to educate an often-overlooked population.  

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