by Jill Ragar Esfeld
OLPE — Catholic schools and their activities are often at the heart of rural communities, believes Karen Kehers, administrative secretary for St. Joseph School here.
“Most of our social events in Olpe involve raising funds for the school,” she explained. “We have a big barbecue in the fall and two annual festivals. Everyone gets involved.
“It’s a really strong Catholic community, and St. Joseph is our jewel.”
So often the support that the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF) supplies rural Catholic schools by providing tuition assistance to struggling families impacts the community as well.
The interdependence of school and community — as well as the importance of CEF support — hit home in Sacred Heart Parish in Emporia this spring. When Tyson Foods closed part of its Emporia facility this January, some 1,500 jobs were lost. Twelve out of the 55 families with children enrolled at Sacred Heart School were impacted.
The loss of a parent’s job can easily disrupt and demoralize an entire family. But it’s far more devastating when that loss results in children having to leave their friends and school community — and the emotional support those networks provide.
Every morning at Sacred Heart, for example, the day starts with a prayer and petition service in the cafeteria. After the layoffs, those children affected used that opportunity to offer up their worries and fears and to express their needs and their families’ needs. Sacred Heart students have learned firsthand how to support each other through Jesus Christ.
Fortunately, CEF was on hand in Emporia to supplement the tuition of those impacted by the Tyson closing.
Rafael Garcia has three children in Sacred Heart and another who has already made the move to public high school. He’s grateful CEF scholarships are making it possible for his children to continue to receive a Catholic education.
“[CEF] is a good thing for poor people like we are who don’t have a real high income in their household,” he said. “The children cannot get a better education in a public school, and it helps us to see that, through our children, faith and God may grow in our family and in the community.”
But it is not only crises that highlight the interdependence of rural communities and their Catholic schools.
The Emporia and Olpe communities have also profited by their Catholic students’ example of stewardship for the environment. For close to 10 years, both schools have boasted recycling areas in every classroom. Students go throughout the building, collecting the cardboard, plastics, newspapers, magazines and papers to be taken to the local recycling bins.
St. Joseph, which has 83 students, recycles over 2,700 pounds each year.
That same kind of community spirit exists at St. Rose Philippine Duchesne School in Garnett. Last year, St. John and Holy Angels combined to form St. Rose. The new school has 65 students in grades first through eighth, and will be adding a kindergarten next year.
“I think when something like that [merger] happens, it worries the parishioners, parents and students,” said principal Nancy Butters. “But everyone here worked hard to bring traditions from two schools together and to keep it a close- knit community.”
Butters credits CEF with helping keep the doors of St. Rose open.
“Without CEF, it would cause such a hardship,” she said. “We would have to find other outside sources for funding.”
Instead, the school administration is able to concentrate on helping its students excel through programs like its Student Improvement Team, which has teachers meeting with Butters at the end of each month to identify students who are struggling academically.
“We try to come up with a variety of different intervention plans based on what we believe to be the reason behind the problem,” Butters explained. “For about six weeks we chart those interventions to see how we’re doing, and then we meet again to determine whether we need to take a different path with the child.”
The rural school’s small community is one key to the success of the Student Improvement Team approach.
“We’re able to know everyone fairly closely, so we can get an idea of what might be a source of the problem,” she said. “When you know that background information, it is very helpful to determine those sorts of things.”
All three schools rate high academically. Their students feed into the public school system at seventh grade for Sacred Heart and St. Joseph and at ninth grade for St. Rose. The Catholic school students are known to continue to excel in both academics and sports.
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