By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
JEFFERSON CITY — Madeline Nak is a hero and a role model. Just ask her little brother, Yak.
“My sister attended Catholic schools for her entire life,” Yak told the Senate General Laws Committee in Jefferson City Jan. 31.
“She first started her roots in Holy Cross, then moved on to Cristo Rey High School,” he said. “The virtues, the character and education she learned in these schools were very life changing.
“Now she is attending on of the best Catholic colleges in the United States,” Yak said. “Madeline is a sophomore now with a full academic scholarship to Creighton University. Everything that led her to this day was started by the little things she learned for success and confidence in her Catholic schools.”
Yak, 14, is an eighth-grader at Holy Cross School in Kansas City.
“I am going to continue my Catholic education into high school because of the success of my sister,” he said.
Yak, Holy Cross Principal Jean Ferrara, and Diocesan Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Peters were among a roomful of witnesses speaking in favor of the Passport Scholarship Program provision of a larger education reform bill that seeks to solve a host of problems caused by the loss of accreditation of three large Missouri public school districts — Kansas City, St. Louis, and Riverview Gardens in St. Louis.
Part of the solution would be the Passport Scholarship Program which would allow a state income tax credit of up to 60 percent for donations to private school tuition assistance programs, such as the Strong City, Bright Futures and Honoring Family funds in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Donations to those funds are already tax-deductible, according to director Kerry Essmann.
Peters told the Senate committee that expanding the tax benefits of donations through direct credits against taxes would enable tuition assistance funds to expand and offer the opportunity of fully accredited Catholic education in their own neighborhoods to students in low-income families now living within the boundaries of the non-accredited Kansas City School District — and at a savings to taxpayers, who would be asked to spend nothing directly to support Catholic schools.
The public school district “spent $14,253 per student in the 2010-11 school year as compared to just over $5,600 that our schools spent on each student,” Peters said.
Peters said that the Catholic schools in Jackson County now have room for some 700 elementary school students and nearly 400 high school students.
“Parents from the Kansas City Missouri School District that send their children to our schools will be provided a quality education for a cost that is more than half the KCMSD in an environment that is safe, secure and well disciplined,” he said.
Yak also said that Catholic schools are also open to children of all faiths. He and his family are Episcopalian, he said, and refugees from a brutal civil war in Sudan.
“My family lived in Wau, Sudan, where my mother grew up,” he said.
“My mother started her education in a boarding school in Sudan, but was forced to drop out because of the civil war,” he said.
“My mother’s parents had perished in the war, and she lived with her grandparents. My grandparents continued to be persecuted because of their Christian beliefs, so my mother moved to a less dangerous area to be raised by her aunt and uncle,” Yak said.
“She never was allowed to continue her education and lived in fear until she met my father and they married,” he said.
“The war expanded and eventually, they were forced to leave once and for all in order to save their children and themselves,” Yak said.
“After three years of brutal struggle, we escaped to Cairo, Egypt. After three years in Egypt, my family moved to America where my two youngest brothers were born,” he said.
“We are a family of six children living in this country,” he said.
When the U.S. State Department settled the family in Kansas City, Yak said his parents first concern was the education of their children. They chose to sacrifice and spend thousands of dollars in tuition, in addition to Strong City Fund assistance, to enroll at Holy Cross.
“The reputation of the public schools in my area was not as good as my parents would have hoped,” Yak said.
“They knew there was no time to waste when dealing with young minds and education was more valuable than any money they could save,” he said. “My mother has always said and will say to this day, ‘Why did we make the sacrifice to send all our children to the Catholic school? You will have the education I was unable to have. Education is what matters.’”
Yak told the committee that he can look around his neighborhood and identify kids his age who will not have a future. Some, he said, have already dropped out of school.
“They roam the streets with nothing to do,” he said. “Hope of a job is lost, and further education is impossible.
“I know the impact of a Catholic school in my life is very special,” he said. “For this reason, I wake up every morning to go to school. For this reason, I work hard.”
Ferrara said Yak’s story is remarkable, but not unique in Catholic education even within the walls of Holy Cross School, which is predominantly Latino with significant numbers of Asian, African and Caucasian students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
“Those children who arrive unable to speak English are conversant in one semester,” she said. “They are fluent in English within two years, and achieve high functioning academic language within five to six years if they can financially stay in our school,” Ferrara said.
Ferrara said that the median annual income of families with children enrolled at Holy Cross is $23,000.
“Still, our people opt for Catholic education and find a way to pay tuition. Everyone is welcome no matter their religious tradition,” she said.
“The tough part is, no one can come to Holy Cross School free. Our school is strictly tuition-based. All must pay something,” she said.
Students who attend Holy Cross from kindergarten through eighth grade compete successfully in any high school, including college preparatory Catholic high schools. If they go to a Catholic high school, 98 percent of them will move on to college, Ferrara said.
But Holy Cross teachers have to help students catch up who come to Holy Cross from Kansas City public or charter schools, Ferrara said.
She told of one incoming fourth grader whose transcript said she was a straight A student.
“She was disappointed her first quarter at Holy Cross because she was making Cs,” Ferrara said. “It did not take long to understand how much homework counts and how organized a person should be to be successful at Holy Cross.”
Ferrara said Holy Cross looks forward to taking in more students if the Passport Scholarship tax credits help to encourage donors to give to tuition assistance funds.
“We have full accreditation and would cherish the opportunity to help the school district educate children for less than transporting them out of our neighborhood,” she said.
“We have room and would make room for more students,” Ferrara said. “The time is now. The students are here, and so are we.”
According to Yak, failure is not an option at Holy Cross.
“Our tradition for strong academics is in place and all of the teachers will work with anyone to make sure you are successful,” the eighth-grader told the Senate committee.
“There is no bullying, there is no fighting, everyone has what they need to succeed, and I must say you have to work the hardest to be unsuccessful.
“Success is the business of Holy Cross School.” Yak said.