by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Call it an early Christmas, a game changer or the opportunity of a lifetime.
Any way you look at it, the Bishop Ward High School class of 2023 has achieved outstanding results in the college scholarship department. Credit goes to the students, the extensive support network at the Kansas City, Kansas, high school, and the commitment of a Kansas City-area foundation and Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri.
Of the 55 Ward students who applied to receive college tuition assistance through KC Scholars, a program rooted in the Kauffman Foundation, all were awarded five-year scholarships of $10,000 annually — and many have offers of full-tuition scholarships. KC Scholars stems from the legacy of Ewing Marion Kauffman, entrepreneur and humanitarian, who sought to ensure the possibility of a postsecondary education for everyone, regardless of income, age or ethnicity. To qualify for the KC Scholars traditional scholarships, high school juniors must have 2.5 or higher GPAs and be from low- to moderate-income households. Consideration also goes to students who will be the first generation of their families to attend college.
The majority of Bishop Ward students face few difficulties meeting these criteria. The high school has served changing immigrant communities for more than 100 years. Today’s student body is 74% Hispanic and 20% Black, many of whom will be first generation college students and whose families are unable to contribute substantially to their college education.
Extensive network of support
Emily Saatcioglu, Ph.D., Ward academic dean, says it’s important to convince these youth that they deserve to be in college and that they can succeed, and then to encourage and support them. Bishop Ward has developed an encompassing approach to helping students adopt this mindset, learn important skills and ultimately surmount financial obstacles.
“We want our students to be competitive and positioned to have a college option,” Saatcioglu said.
Students who qualify as potential KC Scholars take a junior seminar offered by Bishop Ward in the fall. They focus on completing and submitting KC Scholars applications that include essays, general information, interests and college preferences. They also learn about college applications, financial assistance and course selection, and meet college representatives.
Supplementing these efforts is the mentoring program offered at Bishop Ward by members of the Leawood Rotary Club and their spouses. Twenty-two adults meet two hours each month during the academic year with juniors and seniors to help prepare them for success in college and in careers.
Jim Wasko, Rotarian and Bishop Ward alumnus, values his mentorship role and takes pride in the scholarships the students receive. Ron Slepitza, Rotarian and past president of Avila, says the Rotary Club and some members also contribute financially to KC Scholars.
At Bishop Ward, everyone — from coaches and counselors to administrators and teachers to campus ministers and facilities staff — provides KC Scholars applicants with letters of recommendation.
“We all take this so seriously,” said Saatcioglu. “When students submit their applications, we hold our breath and pray.”
The KC Scholars application process is highly competitive, with evaluation by a large group of volunteer community reviewers. In 2022, 1,300 11th graders applied from across a six-county area. From that group, KC Scholars announced 402 scholarship winners.
55 apply; 55 named KC Scholars
The combined effort and prayers paid off. In April 2022, 17 Ward juniors were named KC Scholars with the option to attend the college of their choice from the 17 participating higher education institutions.
A month later, another six Bishop Ward students received recognition as KC Scholars, specifically to attend the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Then, in September 2022 came the announcement that Avila University, Kansas City, Missouri, would fund 100 additional KC Scholars, drawing from those applicants who didn’t make the earlier cuts. Students selected would need to attend Avila; their enrollment would be tuition-free and renewable for up to five years.
Bishop Ward transported its 32 remaining potential KC Scholars to Avila for a campus tour.
“We wanted the students to make informed decisions about attending college there,” Saatcioglu explained. “Avila seemed like a really good fit for our students who love being in a Catholic high school and who don’t want to move away from the area.”
Still, the bus trip was an emotional roller coaster ride. The students hadn’t been selected for the spring scholarships; they remained in a competitive process.
Exhilaration replaced uncertainty when KC Scholars announced that all 32 Bishop Ward students would be recipients of the Avila scholarships.
Continuity of Catholic education
Josh Parisee, the university’s vice president of enrollment management, calls this an incredible accomplishment. He sees strong similarities between the values of Avila and Bishop Ward, both Catholic institutions. He anticipates that this continuity of Catholic education and consistency of values may help acclimate Bishop Ward students to college life at Avila.
Avila has participated with KC Scholars since the program’s inception in 2016. Parisee acknowledges the vision of Jim Burkee, Ph.D., Avila’s new president who is seeking to extend the impact of KC Scholars even further. Avila has made a $110 million commitment over eight years to fund 100 additional “Avila only” KC Scholars annually. KC Scholars has committed $20 million to this initiative. Parisee believes that students with the greatest need can now find it more feasible to attend college and that this will have a long-lasting generational impact.
Natalie Lewis, KC Scholars chief operating officer, commends the team that encouraged and supported the 55 Bishops Ward students who merited the scholarships.
“It’s testimony to this amazing educational institution that it’s doing what a school is supposed to do — believing and investing in its students. We don’t have many high schools with as high a number of KC Scholars as Bishop Ward has this year.”
New year, renewed commitment
The KC Scholars application process opens Jan. 9, 2023, for high school juniors seeking college scholarships. Saatcioglu has faith that even more Bishop Ward students can be successful and that faculty, staff and mentors will be there to help them every step of the way.