By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Remember the Central City School Fund? The partnership of civic, philanthropic and Catholic communities was established 25 years ago by then-Bishop John J. Sullivan to help families in Kansas City’s urban core attend Catholic schools. More than 26,000 kids have been able to attend neighborhood Catholic schools over the years as a result.
Today, there are three Catholic grade schools still providing a quality education to kids in the inner city. The Central City School Fund was renamed the Strong City School Fund in 2011 to highlight the fund’s new path expanding outside the inner city. Jeremy Lillig, director of the Bright Futures Fund, said the name, Strong City, comes directly from Isaiah 26:1: “On that day this song shall be sung in the land of Judah: ‘A strong city have we; he sets up victory as our walls and ramparts.’” The Strong City School Fund will benefit not only students in Kansas City’s urban core, but also in Montrose, Nevada and other rural areas, Lillig said.
The annual School Bell Breakfast, to be held April 24 at the Muehlebach Tower, will celebrate 25 years of opportunity to students in need in Kansas City. Over the past quarter century, the now Strong City School Fund has invested more than $36 million in urban core education and assisted more than 15,000 families.
The School Bell Breakfast will honor the late Bishop Raymond J. Boland, with the St. Thomas Aquinas Award for his contributions to Catholic education during his 12 years as bishop of Kansas City – St. Joseph.
The fund, a part of the diocesan Bright Futures Fund, continues the legacy of the Central City School Fund by helping families attend Holy Cross, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Angels schools through scholarships that offset part of the tuition cost.
Education, especially quality education, costs money. Catholic schools have a long history of educating students on a shoestring, and doing it well. The 2013-14 KCSJ Diocesan School budget for all its elementary and secondary schools is $41 million. According to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the unaccredited Kansas City Public School District (KCPSD) costs the taxpayer approximately $15,000 a year per student. According to the same department, the KCPSD 2013-14 budget is $234,000,000.
Catholic Schools in the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph save Missouri taxpayers $130 million every year.
The importance of the Strong City schools — Holy Cross, Our Lady of the Angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe — to the Northeast, Midtown and Westside neighborhoods is multifaceted. In addition to the tax dollar savings, strong schools help anchor families and stabilize the neighborhoods. They also educate great future business professionals.
Children attending the culturally diverse Strong City Schools build self-esteem as they grow academically, spiritually, emotionally and physically. Families are assisted through support services including before and after school care, breakfast and lunch programs and seminars on parenting skills. Neighborhoods are strengthened and stabilized by the presence of vital schools offering a strong basic education in reading, writing and mathematics.
“We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors in Catholic schools,” Lillig said.
Holy Cross School opened in 1910, Our Lady of Angels in 1911 (as Guardian Angels School) and Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1915. Their neighborhoods, once strong working class neighborhoods, suffered when families moved away and gangs moved in. But, as Bob Paredes, Board Chair, Bright Futures Fund, said, there are still kids playing ball and riding bikes, and there are parents watching out for them. Many of those parents make huge sacrifices to send their kids to the neighborhood Catholic school. Although the tuitions charged are reasonable, for families who get paid by the day or by the job, $4,000 can be a major expense.
The majority of the students attending Holy Cross, Our Lady of Angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe are Catholic, while about 14 percent are of other faith traditions. Many of the students and their parents are non-English speaking; their mother tongue is often Spanish, Sudanese or Vietnamese. In fact, 43 percent of the students are English language learners. They will become fairly fluent in English in a short time, but at home they will still speak Spanish, Sudanese or Vietnamese.
A number of the neighborhood children are “warehoused.” These are children whose parents have been deported. They stay with relatives — aunts, uncles or other relatives — and those relatives often send them to Catholic schools like Holy Cross.
About 88 percent of the 436 students in the three schools receive free or reduced (cost) lunch. And yet, despite the families’ daily struggles, the three Strong City Schools can boast a 96 percent average daily attendance. The kids and their families want to learn!
Scholarship need is going up, at a time when charitable donations are going down.
But Lillig said, quoting last year’s School Bell Breakfast Keynote Speaker Nicole Stelle Garnett, Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, “Demographics do not determine destiny.”
There were 740 attendees at the 2013 School Bell Breakfast, and Lillig hopes more will come to the 2014 breakfast. He is excited about new partnerships with area Catholic high schools, Seton Center and beginning to partner with Catholic Charities to enable families to access wrap around services. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have enabled the Strong City School Fund to access their Emergency Fund for certain needs at the schools.
“We are working together to be more mobile and agile,” Lillig said. “Poverty is nomadic — it doesn’t stay in one place. We are one cog in the machine to lift people up.”
The School Bell will ring for Breakfast at 7 a.m., April 24, at the Muehlebach Tower of the Marriott Hotel downtown, 200 West 12th Street, Kansas City. Individual reservations for the School Bell Breakfast are $30, and partly tax-deductible. For more information, visit www.brightfuturesfund.org.