by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Holy Name School principal Kathy Rhodes recently informed a parish family here that scholarship money from the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF) would enable their children to attend Holy Name School, the mother burst into tears.
The woman, who had been forced to withdraw her children from Catholic school because of financial difficulties, said, “I feel like I just won the lottery.”
The CEF may not be the lottery, per se, but it is changing lives throughout the archdiocese by supporting rural and inner-city schools through scholarships to students in need. Overall, the foundation sponsors 14 elementary schools and Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan.
Funding for the foundation comes from the Archbishop’s Call to Share, as well as from private and corporate donations and grants.
The influence of CEF’s assistance is especially felt in Wyandotte County, where it supplies aid in the form of scholarships to students of Bishop Ward and five elementary schools: Christ the King, Holy Name, Our Lady of Unity, St. Patrick and Resurrection Catholic School at the Cathedral.
In the past, CEF principally assisted schools by providing school programming, but now it disperses funds almost exclusively through scholarships.
“The scholarships are for the students, but at the same time, the tuitions they provide contribute to operating income for the respective schools,” explained Michael Morrisey, CEF’s chief executive officer. “So, the more scholarships we put into those schools, the more kids that are able to go to those schools, and the more income the school has for improvements.”
Scholarships are available to those students whose families have an average income of less than $40,000 and attend schools where over 25 percent of students enrolled are on the government’s free and/or reduced lunch program. Each school is allotted an amount of scholarship money to be distributed at the discretion of the school principal. Parents apply to the school for scholarship aid and then, based on their income and their number of dependents, are awarded scholarship money.
To determine the distribution of scholarships this year, Rhodes met with qualifying families individually and explained to them the cost of their child’s education and how it related to the school budget. She then named the amount that would be considered the family’s contribution (after deducting the parish subsidy from the total cost) and asked how close they could come to that number.
“Most families did more than what you would expect because they value what they get here and they make it a priority,” she said. “They understand what a Catholic education gives their children — not only from kindergarten through eighth grade, but for the rest of their lives.”
Jennifer Knight, CEF’s director of development and marketing, agrees that Catholic education is a lifetime gift.
“It’s a fact that Catholic school graduation rates are much higher than the public school rates,” she explained. “A student allowed the opportunity to go to a Catholic grade school is more prepared to enter the path of graduating from high school and going on to college — and that level of education is integral to breaking the cycle of poverty.”
Knight started with CEF this past June. She’s responsible for helping Morrisey do the fundraising for the scholarships, including grant writing and event planning. Knight said she’s fallen in love with the mission of the foundation, which she believes puts into action Jesus’ directive to love our neigh- bors as ourselves.
“The federal poverty guidelines say a family of four with a gross income less than $20,400 is living in poverty. And it’s heartbreaking to know what a huge percentage of the kids in our diocese live at or below the poverty level,” she said. “So when people can donate money to help kids go to Catholic school, it is not just a one-time donation. They’re helping break entire cycles of poverty for generations to come.”
Wyandotte County’s new consolidated school, Resurrection Catholic School at the Cathedral, attributes much of its success to CEF scholarship funding.
According to Morrisey, the retention of students from consolidated schools is up over 80 percent and expected to increase.
“Overall, the consolidation has gone well,” he said.
Resurrection school principal Ann Connor agreed, saying, “Life is good; people have adjusted quite well — especially our children.”
Fifty percent of Resurrection students benefit from CEF support and Connor believes CEF’s approach to supporting schools through scholarships rather than providing specific programming is a win-win deal. Parents are able to make a full commitment to the school, more students are able to receive a Catholic education, and with the additional tuition money, schools can arrange programming based on individual needs.
“With tuition money, we’re still able to provide a nurse and the different things that CEF paid for in the past,” she explained. “But if they paid for the nurse, that would mean two or three fewer scholarships I would have been able to give out.”
St. Patrick School has only a quarter of its students relying on CEF scholarship aid, but principal Mary Staley believes if it weren’t for CEF, that quarter would be lost.
“We’re on the western end of Wyandotte County; our families often don’t meet the specific criteria of low socioeconomic status. But many of them come so close, it’s a vague area there and what we sometimes call ‘falling through the cracks,’” she explained. “We have a lot of families that, if it wasn’t for CEF, could not afford to send their children to Catholic schools, because they would fall through the cracks.”
Far from falling through the cracks, St. Patrick students seem to be soaring above them. This year the school scored highest of any school in the archdiocese on Kansas State Assessment tests.
“We did very well,” admitted Staley. “But even though we do a great deal with academics, the first step in our mission is to bring spirituality and the teachings of Christ to our students.”
Holy Name School vice principal and sixth-grade teacher Lori Petesch agrees that spiritual teaching is the reason many Wyandotte County parents value Catholic education and are willing to make sacrifices to see that their children attend a Catholic school.
“They value the fact that we can bring Christ into every aspect of the curriculum,” she said. “And that if someone has a problem, we can stop what we are doing and we can pray about it as a family.”
Petesch was recently leading a tour of Holy Name for CEF board members. As she pointed out improvements the school was able to make with tuition money provided through CEF scholarships, she realized the true gratitude in her heart for the generosity of the foundation couldn’t be expressed through a tour of school improvements.
With that thought in mind, Petesch told board members a story about a single family in her school that was greatly impacted by CEF.
The family included a single mother raising four boys. The young family lived with a grandmother who helped pay tuition so the children could receive a Catholic education at Holy Name.
One night a few years ago, a fire engulfed the home and claimed the lives of the grandmother and two of the boys.
“It was a very difficult time for everybody,” said Petesch. “A big means of support — the grandma — was gone, and the mom was not able to work, she was so very distraught.”
With so much tragedy and disruption in their lives, the last thing the remaining two brothers needed was to change schools. But circumstances made it impossible for the mother to afford tuition.
“We felt like it was so necessary for them to stay here because we were their extended family,” said Petesch. “Through the CEF scholarship money, we were able to help the boys continue at Holy Name. If we didn’t have that pool of money, there’s no way we could have done that for them.”
Rhodes agreed with Petesch’s approach.
“What’s important for CEF board members to see is how they’re making a difference in the lives of the children,” she said.
“Yes, they like to see the flat screen computer,” she added, “but what really matters is how this has changed a child’s life.”