THOUGH ST. AGNES of Bohemia Grade School in Chicago is blessed in many ways, affluence is not one of them. Half of its 600 students are Mexican-born immigrants, and many parents struggle to meet tuition payments on the wages earned from their entry-level jobs in factories and warehouses.
The school's hardscrabble neighborhood is a testament to the woes of poverty. Gangs and drugs collide with the lives of youth. The local public high school, competing against the lure of the streets and lacking sufficient resources, graduates less than one-third of its students.
Yet, amid the grinding poverty, St. Agnes manages to keep its building in good condition, its students in scholarship money, and its programs in fine fettle. The school spent $65,000 on rewiring for its 40 state-ofthe art computers. It plans to part with another $65,000 for a new roof for its 95-year-old building. It even paid $55,000 to set up a model preschool, accredited by the National Association of Early Childhood and Education, which has accredited only five percent of all preschools.
Students, too, are better off than expected. Twenty-three immigrant students who arrived in the United States less than three years ago are on full scholarships.
St. Agnes is not alone in its surprising financial abilities. One hundred twenty-three other grade and high schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago also are able to rise above impoverished circumstances and provide inner-city children with quality education. The schools are beneficiaries of the Big Shoulders Fund, created in 1986 by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. The fund supports 42,000 students at 102 grade and 22 high schools.
The fund is a private, separately incorporated not-for-profit group run by corporate and civic leaders, only some of whom are Catholic. The most successful program of its type, the fund has raised $62 million for Catholic schools from businesses, individuals, and foundations. “Big Shoulders” was coined by the poet Carl Sandburg to describe Chicago's industrial brawn.
The fund provides schools with capital, operating and so-called incentive grants for new books, software, science materials, and the like. Other funds are distributed for scholarships, teacher seminars and workshops, the creation of preschools, and programs to assist children with disabilities.
Schools qualify for assistance from Big Shoulders by meeting federal poverty criteria, such as percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches as well as other data.
Even with the support, Big Shoulders schools struggle mightily to make ends meet. Some schools have closed their doors despite the funding. But without the fund many more schools would have closed.
“It's the reason we're alive. We couldn't survive without Big Shoulders,” said Pat Jones, principal since 1980 of St. Agnes, which has received a $75,000 operating grant from the fund every year since 1986.
Like Catholic social service agencies, Big Shoulders benefits large numbers of non-Catholics and minorities. Thirty-eight percent of students at Big Shoulders schools are not Catholic. Nearly 80 percent are minorities, mostly Latino and African-American.
The greatest payoff may be the solid citizens produced by the schools.
Altogether, the Archdiocese of Chicago has 281 grade and 48 high schools, the largest private school system in the world and the 11th largest of all U.S. school systems. The average cost to educate a grade school student is $2,163, but on average, schools charge tuition of just $1,468. Normally, fund-raisers, support from the parish, and grants from the archdiocese make up the difference. But Big Shoulders schools, whose parents are low-income, are less able to raise funds through tuition and fund-raisers or count on parish support. And their aging buildings typically require steep repair costs.
The need for Big Shoulders has not lessened as the economy has improved, said Daughter of Charity Sister Margaret Marie Clifford, associate director. “The fund was created to serve those who are economically disadvantaged. No matter how good the economy is, parents at our schools are the first ones to be laid off or be down-sized,” she said.
The board of directors of Big Shoulders has a goal of raising $100 million. That money may be needed soon. Chicago Archbishop Francis George said in July that financial pressures may force school closings. An announcement from a Special Task Force on Education is expected in the fall. The archdiocese has been down this road before. Eighteen schools were closed in 1990 when 26 parishes were closed due to the archdiocese's deficit. Every year since then several schools have been shuttered.
The Big Shoulders money has made a big difference. About 94 percent of Big Shoulders grade school students go on to graduate from high school. Some 87 percent go on to college. Those numbers are significantly better than those posted by Chicago public schools.
Test scores also attest to the value of Big Shoulders schools. Students score near the 50th percentile in the California Achievement Tests, scores dramatically higher than those earned by public school students.
The Big Shoulders schools represent a tremendous savings to taxpayers. If the students at the schools were to transfer to public schools, taxpayers would have to pay an additional $230 million each year.
The greatest payoff may be the solid citizens produced by the schools. “Our graduates have become lawyers, teachers, accountants—you name it,” Jones said. “Big Shoulders has made a difference in the lives of so many people. It's making a better tomorrow for everybody.”
The effectiveness of Catholic schools is a primary reason why business leaders support Catholic education. “Big Shoulders gives inner-city students an equal-education opportunity,” said Andrew McKenna of Schwarz Paper Co. “They get the same type of quality education they'd receive if they were living in school districts well-known for the amount of money spent per student.”
Big Shoulders enables schools to stay current with their curriculum. Santa Maria Addolorata Grade School has received funds to upgrade both its math and English programs. It also accepted funds for a counselor, a Felician sister.
Located in a depressed North Side neighborhood, the school nevertheless produces students who shine. All 21 graduates this year are headed to private high schools. Twenty-eight of its alumni made the honor roll last year at just one nearby Catholic high school.
“We're able to provide a personal touch,” said principal Bonnie Veth. “We keep the kids on target.”
Jay Copp is based in Chicago.