By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

Eric Engemann nestled into his new chair, still acclimating to his new digs.

Teenage voices, bursting with a hope for the future perhaps for the first time in their young lives, filtered through the window of his modest office housed in a modular building.

Six days into his new job as president of Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School, Engemann was comfortable, any lingering doubts he might have had regarding leaving his previous position as executive director as SportsBR erased by the warmth and acceptance he has received from the school’s nearly 180 students.

“I would not have taken another education job; I didn’t have an interest in being a traditional principal somewhere,” said Engemann. “The model here and what we are trying to accomplish and where we are trying to accomplish it is really the most interesting thing to me.

“This is really more about finding ways to help these students not only get a traditional education but to build the rest of their resume and the rest of their skill set so they can excel once they leave here.”

But Engemann, a graduate of Catholic of Pointe Coupee High School, understands the job presents unique challenges. First up is stability. After all, he is the third person to occupy the president’s chair in the school’s two-plus year history.

Two weeks after opening in August 2016, historic flooding forced students to attend classes in a technology center for 18 months.

For the foreseeable future and likely beyond, classes will be held in modular buildings at the now cleared site of the former Redemptorist High School, where, eventually, a new school will be constructed.

“We have to find ways to make this model work financially,” Engemann said. “That’s where the corporate (work study) model is so important; that’s where the fundraising is so important”

He embraces those challenges, focused on bringing stability to the school as well as ensuring some of the neediest young people in the area receive the benefits of a high quality Catholic education. 

“I think (stability) is important,” he admitted. “I talked to our board about getting the school to a point of maturity. I guess it’s still a little in a kind of startup mode.

“So (the priority) is really getting us a mature model where we start to reflect some of the same gains that some of our other (Cristo Rey) network schools have achieved.”

Engemann said the school has a “great faculty, great staff” who, because of the instability, has “done a lot of the heavy lifting over the past few years.”

He said his role is to develop the most effective and efficient ways to move forward and to stay on track. He would like to take some of the burden off of the staff and “let them do what they are really good at.”

It’s a role that he did not initially accept. He admitted to being a bit hesitant when first approached about the position because he happy with his role at SportsBR, but added that the more he researched the Cristo Rey network and learned about the mission, the more appealing the job appeared.

Engemann realized his position at SportsBR was similar to what he would be asked to do at Cristo Rey in that it involved working in the community, uniting the community and bringing people together. Rather than a sports platform, he would be using education, specifically the educating of underprivileged children, as his pulpit.

“If (uniting the community) was something that I feel like was kind of a calling, what better way to do that than through education and the Cristo Rey model, where many of the same elements are brought together,” he said.

He heralded Cristo Rey’s corporate work-study program, where students spend one day a week working in professional office environments, is the foundation for the young people. Before going to their jobs, students are instructed in such areas as making eye contact when talking to someone else, being courteous and even the proper way to shake hands.

“When you take (Cristo Rey) kids and put them in (professional environments), those employees get a little taste of what their lives are like, what they have had to deal with as young students,” he said. “I think it creates a bit more awareness.”

Together with communications director Carissa Graves, Engemann hopes to become the public face of Cristo Rey, an ambassador, an advocate to those most in need.

And to provide stability and mentorship to young people along the way.