By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — The School Bell Breakfast, the annual fundraiser for the Bright Futures Fund’s Strong City Schools (formerly the Central City Schools) brought nearly 500 people to the downtown Marriott Hotel on May 11. Corporate supporters, individuals, parents and students from Holy Cross, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Angels schools gathered in the Count Basie Ballroom for the breakfast, which was opened by the ringing of a hand bell, the kind used to call students to class in the days before electronic chimes.
A student Mariachi band from Our Lady of Guadalupe entertained the packed room, which was decorated with artwork done by students of all three schools. Tall construction paper vases filled with origami flowers were the centerpiece on each table. Students from the schools were scattered around the room and, despite the fact that they had boarded school buses by 5:45 a.m. to get there, they chatted easily, pointing out various features of the centerpieces or the artwork on easels.
When the bell rang, Emcee Elizabeth Alex, former anchor for Channel 41-NBC Action News, introduced Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
In his short talk before grace, the bishop highlighted several strong points of urban Catholic schools, especially the strong academics, the sense of service and the growth in the faith. Parents sacrifice 13-15 percent of their total income to make sure their children get the best education possible. The children often face adversities, but they are smart strong students, he said. Ninety percent of the students represent an ethnic minority group. Most of the families in the Strong City Schools, 80 percent, live at or below the poverty level ($18- 24,000 per year.).
All of the Catholic schools in this diocese are fully accredited by the Missouri Chapter of the National Federation of Nonpublic Schools and AdvancEd. Records show that 99 percent of students attending a Catholic grade school go on to Catholic high schools, and 97 percent of Catholic high school graduates attend college. Part of the reason for this is the 95 percent average daily attendance rate. Kids want to be there.
Bishop Finn said that the academics, morals and strong faith instilled in students attending Catholic schools have been shown to strengthen their neighborhoods. So, in a nutshell, the Strong City Schools help strengthen and stabilize Kansas City.
“We are committed to make sure that the Strong City Schools remain open and maybe someday to open more schools,” he said. The bishop added that the recently completed school study was a tool to ensure continued strength in all the schools.
Back in 1989, then-Bishop John Sullivan initiated the Central City School Fund to provide tuition assistance to children attending St. Stephen, St. Monica, St. Francis Xavier, Holy Cross, Our Lady of Angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe grade schools and Bishop Hogan High School. Since then, generous donors, who believe Catholic education should be available to anyone — regardless of race, income or religion, have helped provide tuition assistance to families who cannot afford the full tuition. Over the years, demographics and student populations changed, resulting in the closing of St. Monica and St. Francis Xavier and the merging of St. Stephen with Holy Cross. Bishop Hogan is now Hogan Memorial charter school.
The Central City School Fund was renamed the Strong City School Fund, but continues to provide need-based tuition assistance to low income families so that their children can have safe environments, strong academics and values rooted in the faith in the three urban core Catholic schools.
Bishop Finn said, “Thanks to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal, we are able to give the Central City School Fund/Strong City School Fund $800,000 each year. The fund also has received more than $23 million in support from corporations, foundations and individuals since 1989.”
The Bright Futures Fund also supports the Honoring Family Scholarships, which rewards families who continue to make financial sacrifices to send their children to diocesan high schools. Honoring Family scholarships are available to any child attending or enrolling in a local Catholic high school as long as they have a sibling attending a Catholic elementary or high school at the same time.
Strong City Schools, indeed all Catholic schools, report dedicated parental involvement.
Parents and community members volunteer to make the schools better, contributing more than 12,000 hours during the 2010-2011 school year. Parents and grandparents work with their children and grandchildren, encouraging them to succeed.
At one table, three boys sat confidently, chatting with adults about their interests, their hopes and dreams. Adrian, grade 7, and Brian, grade 5, are brothers attending Holy Cross School. Brian and Adrian were joined by their friend, Isaac, also grade 7. Adrian and Brian’s parents also joined the crowd at the table.
Adrian enjoys Math classes and is interested in auto mechanics, where Math would come in handy in calibrating systems. He also dreams of becoming a surgeon. Father Ken Riley, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, assured Adrian that both careers fix things that are wrong with either cars or people.
Isaac is considering many things, but he loves reading. His class at Holy Cross is deep into the courtroom scenes of To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee, which deals with racial inequality and heroism.
Brian enjoys Math, but enjoys helping others more. He plans someday to run for the presidency of the United States, because then he “could help many, many people all over the world.”
While the students and adults were chatting, the Founders Award was announced. James O’Sullivan, an alumnus of St. Francis Xavier School in Kansas City, now chair of the Strong City Schools Board of Directors, honored four members of the original Central City School Fund — Sister of Charity of Leavenworth Vickie Perkins, Larry Blankenship and James T. Seigfreid, who had had a strong influence on the teachers and students in the schools, and presented them with a certificate and plaque. Honoree Tom McCullough was unable to attend the breakfast.
O’Sullivan said that teachers in the Strong City Schools teach lessons of reading, writing and arithmetic with examples of saints and angels, and they have made a commitment to their students to be there morning after morning, day after day, year after year.
Holy Cross 8th grader Armando Mesa introduced himself and described Holy Cross as a launching pad for its students’ future. He said although his early interests were all sports, not academics, the influence of his teachers helped him establish new goals and the work ethic to achieve them. “I will be attending a Catholic high school next year and thanks to my teachers at Holy Cross, I will be able to develop my academic and artistic strengths and even play football for one of the best Catholic highs schools around.”
Joe Ross, an alumnus of Holy Cross School thanked his parents who successfully put 12 children through Holy Cross and St. Pius X High School. He said the two greatest gifts they gave their children were their faith and their education. “My parents were firmly convinced that Catholic education was a strong foundation of the faith. As G.K. Chesterton said, ‘There are no uneducated people. Everybody is educated … but most people are educated wrong.’
“Catholic education has served me well,” Ross said. “My parents were able to sacrifice to send us through Catholic schools. For many children, however, it’s only available through public generosity.”
Mary Delac, principal of Our Lady of Angels, said, “Catholic schools increase the probability that minority students will graduate from high school from 62 to 87 percent, and 97 percent of Catholic high school graduates go on to college. But we have to earn the right to exist every day.”
She described the single mom who brings her two children to school each day on a city bus; the restaurant worker who pays tuition with $1 bills from her tips; the kindergarten and first grade students who couldn’t speak English, recite the ABCs or write their name when they started school that now can; the grandmother who pays tuition out of her social security check each month so her grandson can receive a Catholic education.
“My students and their families are my bottom line,” Delac said.
A video produced and donated by DST systems introduced three students, one from Holy Cross, one from Our Lady of Angels and one from Our Lady of Guadalupe schools. They spoke of things they were learning and their hopes for the future. To Brian from Holy Cross School, success means no financial worries and being able to help others.
Kerry Essman, executive director of the Bright Futures/ Strong City School Fund, said she was ecstatic over the response to the breakfast. “We are starting to see an upswing in corporate giving, which had declined a bit during the strategic planning period. Schools were closing and there were fewer people to serve. Last year we had 300 people at the School Bell Breakfast. This year 500 people came. Income from the breakfast came to about $96,000 to date, from corporate and table sponsors and other contributions. We had 27 corporate and 34 table sponsors this year.”
She said the fund is working to re-engage adult alumni of the Central City Schools to interest them in supporting the Strong City schools. Some celebrity alums include Recording artist Nicolette Larson (Bishop Hogan) and former major league pitcher David Cohn, (Holy Cross). Locally, alums of Central City schools include doctors, lawyers, educators, musicians, artists and business professionals of many fields.
“We want to identify and re-engage alumni,” Essman said. “We need to overcome the misperception that these scholarships are handouts. Our adult alums can attest that parents work two to three jobs and still sacrifice up to 15 percent of their income to send their kids to Catholic schools.”
The true cost of Catholic education is between $4,200 and $4,500 per student each year, Essman said. That is a fraction of what it costs to educate a child in the public schools, which is paid for by taxpayers.
She said that Bright Futures Fund focuses on urban families making sacrifices to send multiple kids to Catholic schools. She hopes to add additional fundraisers, and interest alumni into creating a younger board of directors.
Essman said that eventually she would like to see Bright Futures Fund be able to assist any family wanting to send their children to a Catholic school in Kansas City or surrounding areas.