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Consortium of Catholic Academies’ 25 years of improving educational opportunities for poor children marked with reception

Outside a Sept. 8 reception at the Chevy Chase Club celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Consortium of Catholic Academies of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory and former House Speaker John Boehner stand with the principals of the four Washington, D.C., Catholic elementary schools in the consortium. The principals are Harold Thomas Jr. of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy and Michael Thomasian of St. Anthony Catholic School at left; Elise Heil of Sacred Heart School at center; and Gerald Smith Jr. of St. Thomas More Catholic Academy at right. (Photo by Christopher Jason for the Consortium of Catholic Academies)

Shared affinity for Catholic education among some of Washington’s most prominent politicians was one of the little-heralded factors in sustaining the Consortium of Catholic Academies for much of its first 25 years. The consortium includes four schools serving lower income students in urban areas of Washington, D.C. – St. Anthony Catholic School, Sacred Heart School, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy, and St. Thomas More Catholic Academy – providing academic, social and financial support to more than 800 students each year.

At a Sept. 8 reception marking that anniversary for key supporters and administrators of the four Consortium of Catholic Academies schools, former House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, was introduced with a description of that bipartisan history. CCA board member Vince Burke, whose connections to the consortium go back to the beginning, explained that Boehner worked with the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy to help financially support the Consortium with fundraising events. Their Washington political starpower helped draw in crucial funders who have kept the schools model working, raising millions of dollars.

The CCA anniversary event also served as the introduction of the Consortium’s new president, Camille Brown Privette, a former teacher and administrator in Catholic schools in the Archdioceses of Philadelphia and Baltimore and the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. Privette assumed her new role in August.

Privette told the Catholic Standard her exposure to the consortium model of education in those other dioceses attracted her to the position with the CCA in The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. A Philadelphia native and product of that archdiocese’s Catholic schools, Privette said she has long been aware of the complexities of operating parochial schools. What excites her about the role, she said in remarks at the reception, is the passion within the CCA “to guide each child in knowing that they are a child of God…. I believe that if we get the Catholic identity piece right, we can live out our mission in guiding and educating God’s children.”

Privette said the CCA schools this year opened with 866 students, an increase over recent years.

A star of the evening’s celebration was a graduate of St. Anthony’s School, Honor Williams, who has gone on to earn a law degree at Howard University School of Law. Now an associate counsel with The Orchard, a division of Sony Entertainment, Williams interned on the staffs of former First Lady Michelle Obama and Sen. Corey Booker, D-New Jersey.

Williams called out several of her teachers from St. Anthony as having nurtured her love for music, writing, language and religion, which shaped her career and her life. She explained that because the public school she began in was unsafe, her mother sought out a Catholic education for her.

“Standing before you today… I am truly blessed to have been given the opportunity to learn in a safe environment. It was through my Catholic education that I was given my wings to soar,” Williams said. “Through the Consortium of Catholic Academies, other inner-city minority children will continue to be given their wings to fly.”

Cardinal Wilton Gregory also found points of commonality with the students who benefit from the Consortium. He reminded the audience that he, too, was sent to a Catholic school in inner-city Chicago for the better education he’d get there, even though he was not Catholic.

“It was there in my Catholic school that I came to know the Catholic faith and understand God’s call for my life,” he said. “I was 11 years old and in sixth grade when I knew that I was called to be a priest. We are developing faith leaders in our Consortium schools right now. Many of our students are already starting to lead at their very young age. Our doors and our hearts are open to them and we do all we can to support them on their journey.”

In his introduction of Boehner, Burke explained that he learned that after the bipartisan successful passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, which established nationwide standards for assessing student achievement, Boehner was looking to help low-income children in city schools.

“He (Boehner) said ‘congressmen come into town from elsewhere and they spend a lot of time here. They should do something to better the city,’” Burke recalled. “Luckily he decided to take the Consortium of Catholic Academies as his project. I remember he and Sen. Kennedy decided to have a dinner every year to support the Consortium. At our first dinner committee meeting he introduced the senator and himself, saying ‘you know, if Ted Kennedy and I cosponsor a bill they think one of us hasn’t read it.’ But bipartisanship works. So, over the next 15 years, the speaker and Sen. Kennedy and then Senator (Joe) Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Senator (Dianne) Feinstein (D-Calif.), had an annual dinner, which over that 15 years raised over $20 million.”

Burke also attributed to Boehner, “possibly the best use of political money ever.” He said when Boehner retired he had $500,000 left in his campaign account.  With that money, he established the John Boehner Scholarship at Archbishop Carroll High School. The scholarship benefits graduates of Consortium schools, Burke said.

Boehner echoed thanks to the supporters of the Consortium, from funders to the faculty and staff and including the church leaders who have backed it through its history. In addition to Cardinal Gregory, former Washington archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl was in attendance at the reception.

“Without that commitment at the top, none of this would happen,” Boehner said. “Without the commitment from the cardinals, this wouldn’t succeed.”

Boehner concluded by saying that his work in retirement is limited, and narrowly focused. “if it doesn’t involve helping poor kids get a better chance in life, I’m not going to do it.” That keeps his efforts to supporting the Consortium, a foundation in Florida that aids children of farm workers and the Boys and Girls Club in West Chester, Ohio. “That’s it.”