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February 15, 2009

Schools offer $1 million fund for families out of work Also announced: St. Priscilla and St. Beatrice elementary schools to close in June

By Michelle Martin

Assistant Editor

The Mascios are the kind of people the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Big Shoulders Fund had in mind when they announced the creation of a $1 million emergency scholarship fund Jan. 30 to help Catholic school families who have seen a breadwinner laid off.

With three children at St. Ann School, 2211 W. 18th Place in Pilsen (the oldest graduated last year) Michael Mascio lost his job as a union roofer in November. His wife, Oralia, has a part-time job.

Michael Mascio said he went to St. Ann’s principal, Benny Morten, and told him the kids — one in fourth grade, one in second grade and one in preschool — would have to leave the school because the family couldn’t afford to pay the tuition. The family had fallen behind on utility payments, and lost their car.

“Mr. Morten said he wanted to keep them, and told me just to make little payments when we got money,” said Mascio, adding that things have gotten a little better since his unemployment payments came through.

More need help

Morten said that more families came to him this year to ask for financial help than in the past three years combined.

In response, the archdiocese and the Big Shoulders Fund came together to create the $1 million scholarship fund as “an act of faith and an act of hope” to help Catholic school families in which a parent has lost a job.

“The economic downturn is felt most acutely when someone loses a job,” said Cardinal George. “We don’t want to be in a situation where a child has begun a school year in one of our schools and then has to be withdrawn because a parent has lost a job. … To take a child out of any school that’s a stable environment in the middle of the year is very traumatic.”

The fund includes $350,000 raised by the Big Shoulders Fund, a foundation created in 1986 to support inner-city Catholic schools and their students, and $650,000 to be contributed by the archdiocese, which was already providing $8 million in funding for Catholic schools this year, according to Springfield Dominican Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, the superintendent of Catholic schools.

Many Catholic schools have struggled to pay their bills as their teaching staffs changed from mostly religious sisters and brothers in generations past to mostly laypeople in the decades since the Second Vatican Council. The need to pay lay teachers has led to rising tuition.

Two schools to close

Last year, the archdiocese did not close any schools, Sister Paul said. This year, two schools that were considered for closure last year — St. Priscilla, 7001 W. Addison, and St. Beatrice in Schiller Park — are expected to close in June, she said, although the archdiocese hopes to re-open them as “evangelization and learning sites” in some other form.

The emergency scholarships are intended to help families keep their children in Catholic schools during a time of economic hardship.

Half the money will go to the 93 schools that receive support from the Big Shoulders Fund; the rest will go to the other 155 Catholic elementary and high schools throughout Cook and Lake counties.

Scholarships of $1,000 each will be available for families of students who have had a parent lose a job since Aug. 15, Mc- Caughey said. Families who are eligible should speak directly to their school principals, who can apply for the funds. The money will be sent to the schools and deducted from the families’ tuition bills.

McCaughey said the archdiocese has not yet raised the money for its portion of the fund and would welcome donations from foundations, corporations and individuals. It will likely need more than the money it has already pledged, she said.

“This is an act of faith and act of hope,” she said. “But it was something we needed to do.”

McCaughey acknowledged that the money they committed so far will not be enough to help every family that needs assistance. Anecdotally, she has heard of at least 300 families already that have approached their Catholic schools about leaving because they can no longer afford tuition, and she doesn’t doubt there are many, many more.

“The need is really much greater than the million-dollar baby we have today,” McCaughey said.

Lots of money given

Joshua Hale, executive director of the Big Shoulders Fund, said the organization saw a 40 percent increase in scholarship applications this year. Thi academic year the fund provided $12 million to the 93 schools it helps support; $4.5 million of that was in the form of direct scholarships to 5,000 students. The students who receive scholarships from the Big Shoulders Fund have an average household income of $23,000 a year for a family of five.

Morten said St. Ann is 96 percent Latino and majority low-income. Tuition and book fees for one child is $2,800; for three siblings, it is $3,800.

“I see a tremendous amount of dedication on the part of our families,” he said. “You know everyone’s names, and you share their joys and their struggles.”

That’s one reason the Mascios want their children to stay at St. Ann. When Michael and Oralia told their children they might have to leave St. Ann, the children cried.

“They went and got their piggy banks and said you can have this,” Oralia Mascio said, wiping tears from her own eyes.

Tim Bopp, president of Holy Trinity High School, said that 80 percent of his school’s 400 students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, and 95 percent receive some form of financial aid. The mostly Latino and African-American students come from some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, he said.

“All of them desire a quality education and the opportunity to strive for something better,” Bopp said. “This announcement brings hope for a better tomorrow.”

Bringing hope

It definitely brought hope for Gloria Christopher and her granddaughter, Nhatey Mack, a freshman at Holy Trinity.

Christopher, who lives in the Austin neighborhood, is caring for four of her grandchildren. The three others, ages 10, 8 and 5, attend St. Catherine of Siena/St. Lucy School in Oak Park. She lost her job as a driver for a transportation company in September. By the end of January, she ran out of money to pay the bills.

“It was either pay tuition or pay the bills,” she said. “And the bills always win.”

With the new emergency fund, scholarships and other financial assistance, the school worked out a plan for Nhatey to be able to stay there for all four year of high school, as long as she keeps her grades up.

Annual tuition at Holy Trinity is $6,650, and 90 percent of its 400 students receive some form of scholarship or financial aid, according to the school’s Web site.