Making a difference

The Catholic Education Foundation allows Topeka schools to offer a broader, richer Catholic education


by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

TOPEKA — The see city of the archdiocese and the capital city of the state are separated by some 50 miles as the crow flies.

But three Catholic grade schools here in Topeka have discovered that the Catholic Education Foundation has bridged that distance with some much- needed support in their hour of need. In fact, say school administrators, CEF has been critical to the success of the new pastoral plan of Topeka, a primary component of which was the consolidation of several schools.

This, the second school year after the consolidation, is a case in point. As Mater Dei (the school formed by the consolidation of Assumption and Holy Name) and Holy Family (consolidated from Our Lady of Guadalupe and Sacred Heart) move forward with their new school communities, educators can report that students are thriving and assessment scores are climbing.

First as principal of Holy Family during the initial year of the consolidation and now as principal of Mater Dei, Andrea Hillebert has enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the process.

“I’m sitting at Mater Dei in year two,” said Hillebert, also a parishioner of Mater Dei. “That’s easier than year one, when you’re trying to do everything. By year two, people are ready to make choices.”

Principal of Holy Family Lee Schmidt agrees that this year the benefits of consolidation are clear — especially now that Holy Family students, who were schooled in two different buildings last year, are sharing the same space.

“Our parishioners from both parishes have really come together to form a wonderful school,” he said. “We’re tight here, but the rewards are much greater than the drawbacks.”

The larger student population brought about by the consolidations allows for a wider range of interests and more students to participate in a variety of activities.

But both principals said the help of CEF scholarships was key to ensuring that many of their former students could continue their Catholic educations once the schools were consolidated.

“Without CEF, it just wouldn’t be the same school — we wouldn’t have a lot of the students that are here,” said Schmidt. “And so, with the help of CEF, it makes our school possible — that is the truth.”

Schmidt said the greatest reward of consolidating is the school’s ability to offer students a wider curriculum, a variety of electives, and a more effective learning environment.

“We’re able to offer more in terms of electives, but also in terms of a broader, richer Catholic education,” he said. “The teachers just love it. They’re able to work together and do peer tutoring, grouping and teaching students according to their abilities.”

Throughout the consolidation process, the schools managed to maintain student numbers and almost all their teaching staff.

“The four schools that were consolidating got together to interview everybody who wanted to come back,” explained Hillebert. “We asked them if they had a preference to be at the downtown (Mater Dei) consolidation or the Oakland (Holy Family) consolidation. We really tried to look at what people were able to teach and where they wanted to teach, and we actually retained quite a bit of staff.”

CEF director Michael Morrisey has been impressed with the smooth transition made by the consolidated schools and attributes much of the success to Hillebert and Schmidt.

“I think we should give the principals of those two schools a hats off because they have done a very awesome job,” he said. “The transition has been pretty seamless, and I think the results speak for themselves.”

A third benefactor of CEF support in Topeka is St. Matthew School, where one out of every three students is assisted by CEF scholarships.

“They probably couldn’t afford to come to Saint Matthew if not for the help of CEF,” said principal Theresa Parker. “And we probably couldn’t afford to meet their needs without CEF.”

In Parker’s opinion, reading proficiency is the most basic of the educational building blocks. Thanks to the support of CEF, she said, St. Matthew students excel at it — and she’s got the numbers to prove it.

“Our reading program is excellent,” she said. “In the last two years our scores have improved dramatically. Our rating is very high on the ITBS (Iowa Tests of Basic Skills) and Kansas assessments. Without CEF, this wouldn’t be possible.”

To many Topeka families who value a Catholic education, but are not financially able to provide the opportunity to their children, a CEF scholarship can be life changing.

“The important thing about CEF [scholarships] is that they help our parents and they help our schools,” said Hillebert.

“A lot of people — when they find out that they get a scholarship and they’re not going to be choosing between food and school — they’re so relieved! It just changes everything for them,” she said. “The CEF families are always grateful and they give back. I see our CEF families volunteering at the PTO and I see them at Mass serving in various capacities. It’s never taken for granted. I hope people would know that.”

All three principals expressed their gratitude to those who support CEF because the foundation enables them to offer a quality, faith-based education to any family that values what Catholic schools provide — regardless of its financial need.

“I would like to thank CEF and thank the community for all they do,” Schmidt said. “CEF makes it possible for a number of children to attend our school, and the community is extremely supportive in everything we do. I just want to thank both of those groups for their generosity and their help.”

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