Debby Giancoli teaches first graders at St. Francis International School in Silver Spring. Archdiocesan Tuition Assistance is helping many families there.
Debby Giancoli teaches first graders at St. Francis International School in Silver Spring. Archdiocesan Tuition Assistance is helping many families there.
As a product of Catholic schools and as a noted teacher of the faith, Cardinal-designate Donald Wuerl has emphasized that all Catholics have an important role to play in strengthening and sustaining Catholic education for the future, so Christ's Good News can transform hearts and change our world, now and for generations to come.

Washington's archbishop emphasized that call in his recent pastoral letter on the New Evangelization, and also in his 2008 pastoral letter on Catholic education, when he wrote, "Catholic education is the responsibility of the whole Church." In his education pastoral, he also noted, "The future of our Catholic schools depends on the ability of all of us working together to meet their increasing costs and to assist families who are making sacrifices to give their children a Catholic school education."

One year ago, the Archdiocese of Washington adopted new Policies for Catholic Schools shaped by that vision and by an extensive consultation process involving thousands of local Catholics. And now, every day at the 98 Catholic schools and early learning centers in the archdiocese, the fruits of that vision and those policies are unfolding, as policies are being enacted to strengthen Catholic identity, academic excellence, governance and affordability and accessibility, key priorities identified at a 2007 archdiocesan Convocation on Catholic Education.

And every day, that vision and those policies are having a real impact, providing help and hope to Catholic families and strengthening schools for the future. For the 2010-11 school year, the Archdiocese of Washington has awarded more than $5 million in tuition assistance, a six-fold increase in the amount of aid it offered four years ago. And in a special way, that tuition assistance help is coming from every parish and every Catholic in the archdiocese, providing an investment for thousands of children from low-income and working class families in the city, suburbs and surrounding countryside, enabling them to receive the gift of a Catholic education.

"All of us together realize these schools belong to all of us. We all have a vested interest in the success of these schools," said Msgr. Mark Brennan, the pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg. St. Martin School, like other Catholic schools, exists to "form our children in Christ," he said, adding that everyone benefits from Catholic schools, because they educate future leaders, young men and women of faith who will impact their church and community.

With the help of archdiocesan tuition assistance, the pastor was able to invite families back to St. Martin School who had enrolled in local public schools because they couldn't afford it. As a result, enrollment at St. Martin's increased by about a dozen students, to 253 children in pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, instead of an expected decline.

Another pastor, Msgr. John Enzler of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, said the 2007 Convocation on Catholic Education called together by then-Archbishop Wuerl laid the groundwork for a new approach to supporting Catholic school families. At that meeting, participants agreed on the priority of working together to make Catholic education affordable and accessible, he said. They "agreed to make sure the people of every parish have a stake, a responsibility and an opportunity in providing a Catholic education to our children," he said. "What we did that day was say, 'Catholic education can never fail, it's the responsibility of every one of us, pastors and laity, to insist we support the schools in our community, and Catholic education in general.'"

Under the new Policies for Catholic Schools, all parishes and all contributing parishioners provide significant support to Catholic education. The policies require that parishes that support a Catholic elementary school directly or as part of a regional Catholic school will contribute 3 percent of their offertory collection as part of an education assessment to fund the Archdiocesan Tuition Assistance Program. Parishes that do not directly support a Catholic elementary school must contribute 9 percent of their offertory collection for Archdiocesan Tuition Assistance. Before, all parishes contributed 2 percent of their offertory collection for archdiocesan Catholic educational support.

"It's a recognition that Catholic education is valuable, and we all have to help out," said Father Lee Fangmeyer, the pastor of St. Michael in Ridge, who said the tuition assistance helped a number of families attend the Southern Maryland parish school who otherwise couldn't afford it. The investment, he said, offers a lasting return, as children are nurtured in the faith and experience how the Church is there to guide them through life. "Christ reaches them through this parish and in this school," he said.

Thom Duffy, the archdiocese's chief financial officer, said the new education assessment resulted from feedback across the archdiocese, and "was instituted to more equitably support the cost of Catholic education among all parishes... What it says is there is a commitment and an understanding of the value and worth of Catholic education, and they're willing to sacrifice to ensure that Catholic education will be passed on to subsequent generations."
Every penny of the money for Archdiocesan Tuition Assistance "goes directly to help families attend Catholic school and get a great Catholic education," said Thomas Burnford, archdiocesan secretary for Catholic education. Nearly 4,000 students attending Catholic elementary or high schools in the archdiocese received the tuition assistance this year. "...Archdiocesan tuition assistance is distributed across the archdiocese to families in need in all schools," he said.

In 2009, then-Archbishop Wuerl also established the Tuition Assistance Fund, to allow individual donors to make a personal investment in Catholic education. The archdiocese's tuition assistance effort also receives key support from the annual Archbishop's Appeal and the Forward in Faith capital campaign.

Duffy said that the new opportunities for supporting tuition assistance enables local Catholics to make a difference in the lives of students beyond their own parish boundaries. "They're taking a broader view and ensuring that kids across the archdiocese are able to benefit, based on the generosity of people they'll never know," Duffy said.

In years past, much of the archdiocese's educational assistance went to support a small number of financially struggling schools. Now the archdiocese earmarks those funds for tuition assistance to help families across the archdiocese send their children to Catholic school. Duffy called that new approach "a paradigm shift, from the archdiocese supporting a limited number of schools... By shifting contributions to families, we're putting more children in desks" and providing children whose families otherwise couldn't afford it, with the gift of a Catholic education.

In turn, parishes have been able to leverage that support, which has resulted in stronger enrollment and stronger financial stability for Catholic schools, said Burnford.

"If tuition is $6,000, for example, and a family can only afford to pay $4,000, then that parish tuition assistance of $2,000 is a great investment - it brings in a new student (or keeps a student who would otherwise leave), and the student brings with them $4,000 that the school otherwise wouldn't have," he said.

Burnford also pointed out other real impacts flowing from the new Catholic school policies. New regional school agreements are strengthening Catholic schools as parishes combine efforts in support of area schools, and school consultations are proactively engaging school parents and the broader parish community in efforts to sustain Catholic education for the future.

"We have new regional schools being supported by many more parishes, and parents and parishioners are coming together to actively address their schools' strengths and challenges in an ongoing way," he said.

In places like the new St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, the Catholic school policies and the resulting increase in tuition assistance are helping children and families every day. The school, which features an innovative global learning curriculum, was formed following consultations this past year, when the parish and school communities of St. Camillus and St. Mark the Evangelist worked together to form a new school to better serve their families.

Now, more than 40 percent of the 440 students attending St. Francis International School receive Archdiocesan Tuition Assistance. Many of the children come from immigrant families, with roots in countries around the world, and many of the school's working class families have been impacted by the recent economic downturn.

"As families who are working, they're putting as much into Catholic education" as they can, said Tobias Harkleroad, St. Francis' principal, who said many of the families would not be able to send their children to the school without that tuition assistance. He expressed gratitude for the support of Catholics across the archdiocese. "Everybody is taking a share of the work in making sure every child has an opportunity for a Catholic education," he said.

Franciscan Father Mike Johnson, the pastor of St. Camillus, said that support shows "the Church extends beyond parishes. We all equally do our part to make Catholic education a reality for our children." And that support, he said, helps the school instill Catholic values in its students. "We're raising a generation of global citizens, who care not just about their future, but about the future of our world. We're interconnected."

The principal said Catholic schools like St. Francis "are one of the strongest tools of the New Evangelization that we have. Catholic schools give us a vehicle every day to represent the Gospel to our children and families."

Every day, the principal said he sees how children's lives are changed, as a result of their encountering Christ and experiencing His love at their Catholic school. That, he said, is the return on the investment on Catholic education that he witnesses each day. "They really do change," Harkleroad said. "You see them become better people, day in and day out."