As a Catholic elementary school Principal, Anne Gattman often worries about money. “When I’m driving and I’m alone, my jaw is clenched. It’s about figuring out how to find enough money to meet the need for tuition assistance.”
At St. Jerome’s school in Maplewood, 72 percent of students qualify for the Free & Reduced Lunch program, one of the highest rates in the Archdiocese. Eighty percent of students receive tuition assistance. Even with help, it can be a challenge for families to cover the cost.
This year, Anne was particularly concerned about one of her sixth-grade students. His family was struggling financially, and she was afraid they would end up pulling their son from school. “I had already decided that any donations we received would go toward this student’s tuition,” she said.
Then news came that St. Jerome would receive a $4,000 grant from the Catholic Community Foundation (CCF). The amount would cover the boy’s full tuition, guaranteeing he could stay at school. When Anne shared the news with Nancy McGraw, the school secretary, Nancy had a special name for it. “I call it a God-thing,” she said. “There are moments when you don’t know how you’re going to do something, and then out of the blue something like this happens, and there’s just no other explanation.”
Extra funds a welcome surprise
CCF distributes $700,000 annually to Catholic elementary schools throughout the Archdiocese, with larger grants going to schools with a high percentage of low-income students. The $4,000 came from a reserve CCF set aside for special circumstances. St. Jerome had already been awarded $12,000 from CCF, but the additional money came as a welcome surprise.
“St. Jerome is in a neighborhood with a lot of needs,” explained CCF Program Officer Meg Payne Nelson. “The parish is a mix of elderly residents and newer immigrant families, so there’s less of a donor base for the school.”
As the surrounding community has become more diverse, the school has greeted new neighbors with radical hospitality. For Anne, that means making sure that any family in the community who wants a Catholic education for their child can get it at St. Jerome.
Radical hospitality in action
Last year Anne made the decision to welcome 46 children from families of Karen refugees, members of a persecuted ethnic minority from Burma, now known as Myanmar. The school worked hard to accommodate the needs of the families. “As a very new refugee community, there are a lot of things that Karen parents didn’t understand about the U.S. school system,” Anne said as she described steps she took to ease the transition. To simplify registration, she scheduled a night just for Karen families and brought in translators. She also hired a Karen community member to help families navigate the school’s procedures and access resources.
Anne admits it was a challenge to bring on so many new students at once, but she believes the school is stronger for it. “The students and their families have a great spirit and came in with such joy and hope and trust,” Anne said. “They needed us and we needed them.”
The school’s work with Karen families was a factor in CCF’s decision to award the extra funds. “That’s really a heavy lift for a small school,” Meg pointed out. “We understood the need and knew this grant would make a huge difference.”
Over 60 percent of students attending St. Jerome come from immigrant families, including the sixth-grade student who received the extra tuition assistance. Nancy describes the boy as part of the school’s beautiful mosaic, “We’ve seen such growth in him. We weren’t willing to let financial burdens change the direction of this child’s life.”
Anne is confident the education St. Jerome’s provides is in demand. “The real challenge is that students sitting in the desks can’t pay what’s needed to keep the school going,” she said. Now Anne wants to spread the word that her students are a worthy investment. “We challenge our students to live as Christians. They are the ones who will build our Church and keep it vital.”