Lean on me

Rural families find support in Catholic school communities


by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

MARYSVILLE — Three years ago, Rich Rockwell and his wife Kim of St. Gregory Parish here got news no parent is prepared to hear.

“The doctor walked in and didn’t say hello or anything,” recalled Rockwell. “He just said, ‘Your daughter has cancer. Today is the time to cry. Tomorrow, we work.

“It was uphill from there.”

Easing the burden of that long road to recovery for the Rockwells was the close-knit Catholic community of St. Gregory School, where their daughter Karlee is now a healthy, happy first-grader.

Karlee was just a preschooler when the leukemia was diagnosed. In addition to all Karlee’s health issues, the Rockwells were worried she’d fall behind her peers because of all the school she had to miss. But St. Gregory teachers and administrators made sure that didn’t happen.

“We home-schooled Karlee for a while,” said Rockwell, “and St. Gregory was wonderful, sending the same work the other preschoolers were doing.”

“If her counts were up high, she went on field trips so she wouldn’t lose that bond with her classmates,” Rockwell added. “So when she went back, it was like she was never gone.”

Karlee was no more on the road to recovery, however, when complications arose with the birth of another daughter, Addysyn.

“When Addysyn came out into the world, one lung was underdeveloped and the other one collapsed, and she quit breathing,” explained Rockwell. “They life-flighted her [to Topeka], and she spent 17 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Stormont-Vail.”

Two health-care crises in such a short period of time were not only an emotional strain on the family — they were a huge financial one as well.

But one thing the Rockwells never had to consider was pulling their children out of their Catholic school. That’s because St. Gregory is a Catholic Education Foundation (CEF) school.

“CEF stepped in and helped, and they also helped us financially with Baleigh, another daughter who’s a fourth-grader,” said Rockwell.

St. Gregory School, with 130 students in its preschool through 6th-grade program, is one of three schools in the northwest region of the archdiocese supported by CEF. The foundation also supports Sts. Peter and Paul in Seneca, which has 178 students in preschool through eighth grade, and St. Michael in Axtell, the smallest school in the archdiocese, with 35 students in first through sixth grade.

All three schools are a vital part of their parish communities — and have been so for as long as anyone can remember.

“Some of our kids now are fourth generation going here,” said St. Gregory principal Barbara Hawkins. “This gym is busy up here every night with something going on. In fact, we just had a fundraiser over the weekend. We were kind of shooting to make about $5,000 and wound up making $16,000.”

Todd Leonard, principal of Sts. Peter and Paul and St. Michael, sees the same kind of support demonstrated in his schools’ communities. “The dedication of the parents, grandparents and all the parishioners is what keeps both schools going,” he said. “Because they really believe in Catholic education, more than 90 percent of the parents in both schools are actively involved in some way.”

Catholic schools are especially important to rural communities where, because of agricultural-based businesses, incomes can fluctuate and families can often struggle financially.

In their 2005 report on “Renewing Commitment to Catholic Schools,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that in rural areas “Catholic schools are often the only opportunity for economically disadvantaged young people to receive an education of quality that speaks to the development of the whole person.”

Rockwell, who is a police officer in Marysville and the resource officer at St. Gregory School, agrees that development of the whole person is the critical edge in Catholic education.

“I don’t want to bang public education, but another reason [we send our children to St. Gregory] is that the kids behave better,” he said. “The time they spend in school, they’re not only getting an academic education, but they’re also getting the education they need to succeed in life.”

Julie Lierz, who has taught at Sts. Peter and Paul School for 15 years, grew up 15 miles away in Bern, where she attended public school. Lierz claims she had no idea what she’d missed until she started teaching in a Catholic environment.

“Did I miss out! Bern is a great school, but what I just love about teaching in a Catholic school, and having my children attend a Catholic school, is that religion just plays a part all day long,” she said. “There’s no way you can get in one hour a week [at religious education class] what these kids get in a Catholic school.”

Though faith is the main focus, these little rural Catholic schools are also academic powerhouses.

“We’re actually able to offer the faith portion of the curriculum [and still] do well academically on state standardized tests,” said Leonard. “We have a number of students that were exemplary, and we’ve achieved standards of excellence in a number of areas this year.”

“I’ve got a wall full of standard-of-excellence certificates over here,” Hawkins concurred. “If we don’t have a salutatorian or a valedictorian every year from the public system [high school], it’s an oddity. So we do really stress high academics.”

Like most rural areas, the northwest area of the archdiocese does not have Catholic secondary education. But parents are confident that Catholic education early on gives their children a strong foundation.

With a child in college, one in high school and two still at Sts. Peter and Paul, Mary Beth Kohake can testify to that.

“We face the same problems with kids making decisions that your city kids do, and you always hope that if they have that strong Catholic background that they’ll make good decisions,” she said. “So, having two children that have grown up, I believe that foundation is always there.”

Throughout her years as a Catholic educator, Lierz has known many rural families who have struggled and sacrificed to keep their children in Catholic schools.

“They find it very important, so they’re willing to make the sacrifice,” she said. “And you know, I’ve talked with parents whose children are through the system and now in public high school or beyond, and they have said it was a struggle, but they have never regretted that decision.”

Hawkins agreed, saying that her parents chose Catholic school because of the good teachers and the tradition of high academics, but mostly because of the foundation the children get in their faith.

“I don’t care if your academics are the highest in the state, if you don’t have that solid foundation of morals and values and empathy for your fellow man, you’re not going to have much,” she said.

Hawkins is grateful for the support of the Catholic community, but she sees CEF as the main reason schools like St. Gregory continue to exist in rural areas. Eighteen St. Gregory families are helped by CEF scholarships.

“You know, sometimes people do these fundraisers for us because we want to buy something for the school,” she said. “But CEF is the platform so we can keep this place running. They are an integral part of our existence.”

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