A student raises her hand to answer a question during class at St. Catherine LabourŽ School in Wheaton.
A student raises her hand to answer a question during class at St. Catherine LabourŽ School in Wheaton.
The Archdiocese of Washington's announcement that it will double the tuition aid it is offering to families across the archdiocese next year, and extend the application deadline, is a "testimony to the commitment that the Church as a whole has made for Catholic schools," the archdiocesan superintendent of schools said.

Last week, the archdiocese said it would double tuition aid for the 2009-2010 school year to nearly $4 million.

"Collectively as a Church we are all stepping up to make sure that no child leaves a Catholic school because [parents] can't afford it," said Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, the archdiocese's superintendent of Catholic schools. "We are doing everything we can to help those families."

Archbishop Donald Wuerl told the Catholic Standard that "thanks to the generosity of so many people, including those who support the Archbishop's Appeal, we're able to focus on helping a large number of families in the archdiocese, who are getting to keep their kids in Catholic school (or getting to send their kids to Catholic school for the first time)."

He also noted that "this is the second year in a row that we doubled tuition assistance."

In 2007-08, the archdiocese offered $800,000 in assistance, which was increased to nearly $2 million for the current school year, and it will increase to nearly $4 million for the next school year. So the archdiocese's tuition aid for the next school year will about five times what it was two years ago.

Archdiocesan officials also extended the deadline for families to apply for aid to Feb. 27 for students in Catholic elementary schools and for students currently attending Archbishop Carroll High School. (See related box, page 6.)

More than 5,100 families already have applied for financial assistance for the next school year. Those applications, the archdiocese said, represent an increase of 37 percent over last year and reflect the impact on families of the economic downturn.

The archdiocese said money for the expanded tuition aid comes from three sources: existing archdiocesan education endowments, expansion of a successful pilot program that began this year to shift funds from subsidies for school operations to tuition aid for families, and from donors to archdiocesan-wide tuition assistance efforts.

"Because of that generosity, we will be able to serve more children," Weitzel-O'Neill said.

In addition to private donors, some of that money for the expanded tuition assistance has come from the Forward in Faith campaign that was held several years ago, and from the annual Archbishop's Appeal, which is currently being conducted. In recent weeks, Catholics across the archdiocese have made pledges for the appeal, which provides the main source of funding for the archdiocese's educational and social outreach

"We have been particularly blessed this past year - and now for this upcoming year - to have donors who recognize how important it is for our young people to have a Catholic education," Weitzel-O'Neill said. "And, Forward in Faith is now at a place where it is generating income because of the foresight of the archdiocese,"

She added that she was also grateful for "the generosity of all the people in the parishes who give to the Archbishop's Appeal" because a portion of money from the appeal will be used for tuition assistance.

"The Catholic Church is a community, and being a part of the ecclesial community calls us to reach out and support one another," the superintendent said. "I am thankful for those who are willing to share and make it possible for all of our schools to be successful. The parish Catholic school, particularly, is an integral part of the parish and parish life."

Last summer, the archdiocese launched the Tuition Assistance Opportunity Fund with $400,000 for nine schools. The money, which came from donors and the Education Fund, was used to offer partial scholarships to retain and recruit students who otherwise could not afford to attend a Catholic school .

The early results were so positive, that $965,000 in tuition aid eventually was given to families at 34 schools in fall 2008. As a result, 562 students were retained or attracted. Those 562 students - 241 of whom were new students, and 321 were returning students - brought with them $1.9 million in tuition payments. That in turn meant the subsidy dollars that traditionally went to operations were able to stretch further.

Previously, the Education Fund was used for late-year operational subsidies for a handful of needy schools, but that did nothing to increase enrollment. By shifting funds from buildings to families, enrollment in the schools increased along with tuition payments.

"The parents of children in Catholic schools have always sacrificed - and in some cases have worked more than one job - to make it possible for their kids to attend Catholic schools," Weitzel-O'Neill said. "Given the state of the economy, the call to sacrifice is greater, if not impossible. Some of our (school) families are facing the loss of a job and all the economic challenges that we read about. We have always supported our families who make sacrifices to send their children to Catholic schools."

In noting the tough economic times that many families are facing, Weitzel-O'Neill said, "This effort (doubling tuition assistance) is more important than it ever has been before."

"We are able to double tuition assistance for the 2009-2010 school year, and that is important because Catholic schools are an instrument that primarily provides for faith formation and evangelization, and that is critical to the future of the faith," she said.

The deadline to apply for tuition aid for Catholic elementary schools and for current students at Archbishop Carroll High School has been extended to Feb. 27. The application form is online at www.adw.org/education/assistance.asp.