School seeks to diversify, enrich students’ experience

| December 1, 2010 | 0 Comments

Pat Lofton, right, principal of St. Thomas More School in St. Paul, talks to students as they leave the building at the end of a school day. Lofton and the school have been working toward increasing the school’s racial and financial diversity since 2008 by helping underserved children enroll. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Pat Lofton, principal of St. Thomas More School in St. Paul, strongly believes that Catholic education enrollment needs to be more representative of society.

“Students who are well-to-do and students who are not as well-to-do should be going to school together,” he said. But, today, too often schools are divided along socio-economic lines.

“In many respects, we [Catholic schools] are out-pricing ourselves for the average person and we have to come up with some alternate models of funding and outreach to make sure that Catholic education isn’t for a select few,” Lofton said.

St. Thomas More, which is blessed with many families who can afford to pay full tuition, has been working toward increasing its racial and financial diversity since 2008, when it developed a strategic plan as part of its reaccreditation process.

“Reflecting on our roots as St. Luke’s and Immaculate Heart of Mary schools, we recognized that our schools were far more diverse —particularly St. Luke’s — than St. Thomas More is today,” Lofton said.

He cited the Summit Hill Neighborhood gentrification and the reopening of St. Peter Claver nine years ago as factors that have affected St. Thomas More’s ability to draw a more diverse population.

Planning for outreach

As part of the school’s planning process, a school advisory committee began to develop an outreach initiative that structured tuition to welcome underserved students and their families.

This year, the pilot program is serving eight children based on the financial need of their parents, who pay no more than half the tuition. Although the goal was to add 10 students, the committee is pleased with the result of its “very quiet outreach,” Lofton said.

With student enrollment at 350 and capacity at 450, Lofton did not want to do a “big public” campaign and end up having to turn away kids due to space issues.

“Our goal is to add students each year so that, in time, we have about 100 students that are part of this underserved population,” Lofton said. Adding a diverse population, he said, would do two things:

  • Provide an outstanding opportunity for those families who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
  • Enable the school to grow to its capacity.

“In light of the [archdiocesan] strategic planning process that is taking place — and our school is one of those that has been asked to do a sustainability review — it seems that this approach will help us be sustainable down the road,” he said.

A contradictory goal

St. Thomas More has what, at first, seems to be a contradictory goal: “To collect full tuition from every student who comes in.”

However, Lofton added, the goal is to find donors who would offset the difference between what a family could pay and the actual cost of educating a child at the school.

While looking at ways to fund  the program, Lofton said he received support and helpful information from his friend, Sue Kerr, principal of Blessed Trinity Catholic School in Richfield, which has a similar approach to funding underserved students.

“Ultimately, the goal is to identify donors among our community and among alums of St. Luke’s and Immaculate Heart of Mary, who would feel a desire to help out children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to go to Catholic school,” Lofton said.

Because St. Thomas More has few students that receive free or reduced-rate lunches, it doesn’t qualify for funding from the Legacy Grant or the Friends of Catholic Urban Schools program.

FOCUS has supported underserved students in urban Catholic schools through grants such as the $1 million Pohlad scholarship, said Cathy Cornell of the archdiocesan Catholic Schools Office.

The archdiocese’s Legacy Grant provides assistance to urban schools for professional development; technology hardware, software and training; classes and scholarships for high potential students; testing, training and assessment for English Language Learners; and support for advancement and development.

Education contribution

“We know that education is the best way out of poverty,” Cornell said. “Catholic schools are often the church’s most effective contribution to the poor and economically disadvantaged, especially in inner-city and rural areas. They serve the common good of society by ensuring academic excellence. They develop the whole child by integrating the Gospel message into the academic environment through prayer, liturgy and service.”

Catholic schools have a history of serving immigrant populations with respect and dignity, graduating  close to 100 percent of their students and sending about 97 percent on to college, she added.

Although the archdiocese does not have a way to financially support St. Thomas More’s initiative, Cornell said the Catholic Schools Office is considering new models to help underserved children as well as Catholic education at large.

“We recognize that we’re going to have to do this, somewhat, on our own,” Lofton said. “I’m confident that the generosity of this community will come through, because people here recognize the positive things that can come about, not only for the kids that are part of this program, but for every child that goes to school here.”

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Category: Catholic Education