By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — A gloomy, soggy morning greeted Kansas City as it awoke, but for the 720 attendees at the 5th annual School Bell Breakfast at the Muehlebach Hotel downtown, the smiling faces of the children present brightened their day.
The 7:30 a.m., school bell has rung for this breakfast, hosted by the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan Bright Futures Fund to help support the Strong City School Fund, for the past five years. The Strong City School Fund helps families in the urban core send their kids to three Catholic schools — Holy Cross, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Angels — through needs-based scholarships and operation grants.
Formerly called the Central City School Fund, the partnership of civic, philanthropic and Catholic communities was established in 1983 and awarded its first scholarships in 1989.
Since then, community volunteers and the diocese have assisted more than 30,000 children to attend Catholic schools through needs-based scholarship assistance totaling more than $33 million. Again this year, the Strong City School Fund has pledged $1 million toward Catholic education assistance at the three schools. The diocese gifts the fund $800,000 each year to help fund the scholarships.
Following the Pledge of Allegiance, Bishop Robert W. Finn led the assembled students, teachers, principals and members of the Kansas City community in grace before breakfast. He spoke of the high calling and work of the church to bring children into greater contact with Jesus Christ, and help them be productive intellectually, spiritually and physically. He then called attention to the envelopes at each plate. Inside each envelope was a medal of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony, honoring Pope Francis. The bishop urged those present to pray for the recently elected pope and blessed the medals.
As baskets of muffins and breads were passed around the tables, and servers filled and refilled coffee cups and glasses of milk, Johnny Kane, KMBC 9 sports director, who served as emcee for this year’s School Bell Breakfast, announced the awards presentations.
Two diocesan priests, Father Joe Cisetti and Father Robert H. Stewart, received the St. Thomas Aquinas award this year. Father Cisetti served as pastor of Holy Cross and St. Anthony parishes in Old Northeast from 2007-2011, and there got his first taste of the Central City/Strong City School Fund at work. Currently pastor of St. Therese Parish in Parkville, he remains committed to the mission of the Strong City Schools and serves on the Fund’s Board of Directors.
Father Robert H. Stewart’s entire priesthood has been served in Kansas City. In 1983, he served on a planning committee that worked on establishing what eventually became the Central City School Fund. Now pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in Lee’s Summit, he serves on the Pastoral Care Committee, the Bright Futures Fund Board of Directors, and is a member of the steering committee planning for the new St. Michael the Archangel High School to be built in Lee’s Summit.
The late Dorothy Lambert, the first lay principal hired in this diocese, was once asked out the mission of Catholic education, and said, “… to help children realize the importance of education along with learning love of Jesus.” The Dorothy Lambert Award is presented to a Strong City Schools teacher who exemplifies what she tried to do.
Rex Nolen, Math, Science and Physical Education teacher, and Athletic Director at Holy Cross School, is the 2013 Dorothy Lambert Award winner.
Nolen shows his faith by his actions. He is an active Knight of Columbus and an extraordinary minister of Communion at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. He is a passionate supporter of Catholic education.
Jim O’Sullivan, a member of the Bright Futures Fund Board of Directors, introduced the keynote speaker, highlighting Catholic schools’ granite, steel and bronze — no, not the buildings, “the educators, the parents and the forebears who made it possible.”
Nicole Stelle Garnett, Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, grew up “as an un-churched Protestant in suburban Johnson County public schools.” In fact, her first experience with Catholics, she said, was at Rockhurst High School senior prom in 1987.
A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, she clerked for the Honorable Morris S. Arnold of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and for Associate Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court. She then worked two years as a staff attorney for the Institute for Justice, a non-profit public interest law firm in Washington, D.C. While there, she served on the legal team that successfully defended the constitutionality of the Cleveland and Milwaukee school choice programs. She joined the faculty of the Notre Dame Law School in 1999.
An adult convert to Catholicism, Professor Garnett “proudly became a Catholic School mom eight years ago.”
Her teaching and research focus on property, land use, urban development, local government law and education policy. She is the author of Ordering the City: Land Use, Policing and the Restoration of Urban America (Yale University Press 2009) and, with another professor, a forthcoming book on the effects of Catholic school closures on urban neighborhoods.
Garnett spoke on “Why Catholic Schools Matter,” and why they are still needed.
She pointed out that almost 2,000 Catholic elementary and high schools have closed in the past 20 years. “As Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan has observed, sometimes we are seized by a hospice mentality regarding Catholic schools,” Garnett said. “As if the best thing we can do for our schools is to keep them as comfortable as possible while they slowly die.”
She sprinkled her talk with personal anecdotes as she spoke on the value of Catholic education. When, as a young attorney helping to defend the Milwaukee and Cleveland school voucher programs, she spent some time in their inner city schools.
“It was then that I came to admire Catholic schools as educational miracle workers, and I also began to understand their importance as community institutions.” When she visited those neighborhoods, she said, “Catholic schools seemed like islands of calm and hope in the midst of chaos and despair.”
While she admired what the schools did, she admitted she didn’t really understand them until she enrolled her oldest child in a Catholic school. Since then, “I’ve learned that Catholic schools are more than just educational institutions: They are places where children are formed, and not simply educated, where the joy of vocation is modeled every day, and where faith and reason are truly integrated. And, by learning these lessons with my children, I’ve come to live my faith more fully.”
Garnett suggested three reasons “why we need Catholic schools, by asking you to imagine what we will lose if Catholic schools continue to disappear from our cities.”
Neighborhoods that lose Catholic schools “suffer a loss of educational pluralism.” She pointed out that Catholic immigrants began to arrive in America about the same time that the fledgling public school system was taking root. Catholics quickly became frustrated, she said, that “early public schools were pervasively Protestant and completely intolerant of religious pluralism. Catholic children were systematically taught the evils of the Romish religion, forced to participate in Protestant devotional exercises and beaten senseless if they objected.” So, Catholic bishops took it upon themselves to create a separate system of schools. “A poor, immigrant Church was forced to set about building the largest private school system in the world without a penny of public assistance.”
Over the ensuing 150 years, Garnett added, Catholic schools “have provided an alternative model of education that melds authentic faith with academic excellence — an increasingly countercultural witness in a secularizing world.”
Garnett said that thanks to the “proliferation of charter schools,” there is today a degree of pluralism in education, and Catholic schools should look to charter schools to learn how to thrive. Charter schools however, are public schools and perforce secular, so they cannot provide the same counter cultural witness as Catholic schools.
Then there is the loss of the Catholic School advantage, the teachers — the education miracle-workers. Garnett said, Catholic schools “were, after all, established to educate the immigrant masses, as the Statue of Liberty proclaims, ‘the wretched refuse of your teeming shores.’ Decades of social science research demonstrates that Catholic schools have excelled at educating the disadvantaged —especially poor, minority children that … society all-too-frequently assumes simply cannot be educated. Catholic schools prove that demographics are not destiny. Latino boys are 40 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 2 ½ times more likely to graduate from college if they attend a Catholic school.” And their success is not from “selection bias” or “cream skimming.”
Thirdly, Garnett said, there is the loss of the incubators of social capital. Social capital is the glue that holds us together as a society, and that enables communities to overcome things like poverty that predict crime and disorder. Her research, with her co-author, for the upcoming book on Catholic school closures shows that neighborhoods that lose their Catholic school lose their cohesion, becoming more disorderly and dangerous. “The costs of Catholic school closures are not only felt by displaced students and their families,” she said, “but experienced by entire communities. And communities that already struggle with poverty, disorder, and crime, desperately need stabilizing institutions, like Catholic schools.”
Garnett spoke of the importance of leadership in the Catholic parish, a strong pastor and principal. It takes prayer, determination, good programs and a sense of vocation to survive and grow, she said. Catholic schools have a reputation for academic excellence, but, “we can’t rest on our laurels … and feel smug about our academic superiority. We must work every day to sustain it, and restore it where academic performance is slipping. Every Catholic educator must believe and prove that every child can learn, no matter what struggles they face before and after school. Faith in the God-given potential of every child is one of the secrets of the Catholic school advantage.” Studies (and common sense) suggest that disadvantaged kids have thrived in Catholic schools because their teachers expected them to thrive, she said.
In order to survive and grow, Catholic schools must learn to effectively recruit Latinos, Garnett said. “Latinos now comprise 35 percent of all Catholics in the U.S., and 67 percent of practicing Catholics under the age of 35. Yet only 3 percent of Latino children in the U.S. attend Catholic schools. Our schools were founded to educate immigrant children, and the need for a faith-filled, high-quality education among immigrants in the U.S. has never been more acute. We must find ways to attract more Latino children into Catholic schools,” while at the same time remaining steadfastly committed to the children the schools have served with distinction for decades.
Every Catholic school, Garnett said, “must have a strong sense of identity and mission—and that identity and mission must inform every aspect of the school day. Catholic schools thrived for a century and a half because of their distinctiveness …We believe that every child is formed in the image and likeness of God, and everything that happens in a Catholic school should be infused with that reality.”
She added, Catholics “must overcome our doubts and have faith in the transforming power of God — and then combine that faith with our own initiative … Consider St. John’s story of the breakfast that the Risen Lord shared with his disciples on the shores of Galilee. The disciples had given up, returned to where they began – to empty nets on a fishing boat on a lake in the middle of nowhere. It is then, when all seemed hopeless, that the Lord appeared and once again … as he originally summoned them, encouraged them to try again, try harder, try something new. ‘Cast your net on the other side.’ This must have seemed like a ridiculous suggestion, since they’d been fishing all night, but something moved them to listen. And the miracle that followed, a net full of fish, flowed not simply through the Lord’s power but also through the disciples’ initiative. They listened, trusted, and then acted. And so should we.”
In a video, several Strong City School kids voiced their dreams for the future: to be a pediatrician; a social studies professor; soldier; an artist; to play football for Notre Dame, and be a lawyer, like Judge Judy.
Jeremy Lillig, Director of the Bright Futures Fund, said the School Bell Breakfast raised $136,000 for scholarships to help more urban core families provide Catholic education for their kids.