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November 22, 2009

Volunteers lend their ‘Shoulders’

By Michelle Martin


The 250 students at St. Elizabeth School on Chicago’s South Side might be economically disadvantaged, but don’t tell them they don’t deserve a good education — including a nice playground for recess.

The school, which once was on a “watch list” because of declining enrollment, has seen its enrollment swell even as the public housing complexes that once bordered it have been torn down, cutting the population of school-age children in the area.

Help from the Big Shoulders Fund and other supporters has allowed the school to work with families to make tuition affordable, and to help graduating eighth-graders find financial aid to continue their educations at Catholic high schools.

Annual visits

The school welcomed representatives of the Big Shoulders Fund and of KPMG’s Family for Literacy Program on Nov. 5, the Big Shoulders Fund’s annual Lend a Shoulder Day.

Principal Deborah Graham-Harris, who started her career in education after working as a Chicago Housing Authority and Dolton police officer, came to the school four years ago, after serving at St. Ailbe and Holy Angels schools.

She said St. Elizabeth has benefited from relationships with two patrons who are Big Shoulders donors, both of whom pledge to give $100,000 a year for three years to a specific school, along with advice on how to leverage more resources and think differently about challenges and opportunities.

At St. Elizabeth, that translated into an increased focus on technology, as well as physical upgrades to make the school more welcoming, such as replacing concrete with grass and trees in front of the school.

The development director, Stan Tarr — whose position was supported by the patrons, Mr. and Mrs. Alan Gordon and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Lanctot — was able to get a local Rotary Club to pay for installation of playground equipment, which the school received as a donation from the Naperville Park District, which was replacing it. Then he managed to negotiate a substantial discount on the rubber material under the equipment by waiting until the end of the season, when suppliers were willing to cut prices so they would not have to store the material over the winter.

20 schools touched

Students at the school listened attentively when volunteers from KPMG visited their classrooms, distributing books to the children and reading aloud, or, in the upper grades, having the children read aloud to them.

Big Shoulders benefactors visited 20 schools on Lend a Shoulder Day this year, only a fraction of the 93 Catholic elementary and high schools that receive support from the independent not-forprofit organization. More than half of those schools’ students live in poverty and 80 percent are racial and ethnic minorities, and 32 percent are not Catholic.

Much of the $12 million the Big Shoulders Fund provides each year is in the form of scholarships directed to individual students, who are recommended by their school principals. Requests for such scholarships have increased by 82 percent during the economic downturn.

Students at Big Shoulders-supported schools boast a 95 percent attendance rate and 96 percent high school graduation rate. Of the high school graduates, 87 percent go to college.