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Saving Catholic Schools

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Earlier this year, Chicago Catholics were saddened to learn that at least six Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago had been slated for closure by the end of the year. This unfortunate blow to Chicago's Catholic community was alleviated somewhat a few months later – of the six schools, half of them were granted reprieves. The three schools that will be re-opening this fall are Our Lady of Victory in Chicago's Portage Park neighborhood, St. Florian Catholic School in Chicago's Hegewisch neighborhood, and St. Christopher Catholic School in southwest suburban Midlothian, Illinois. So how did Catholics save those schools?

The Chicago Tribune published an article earlier this week that might provide a few clues. Some of the schools selected for closure, like the Stewart Avenue campus of the Academy of St. Benedict the African, had to do so because of safety reasons. The Stewart Avenue campus is being shut down due to poor building conditions. St. Benedict the African's school program isn't ending entirely, merely one of the school's campuses is closing. However, most Catholic schools end up closing because they are financially struggling and suffering from extremely low enrollment rates.

In the case of Our Lady of Victory, the principal of the school, Jennifer Hodge, was shocked to learn that her school had ended up on the closure list. Since becoming principal, she had been able to double enrollment rates from 91 students to 172 students in just two years. The decision of the Archdiocese of Chicago didn't seem to make sense. “I thought we were moving in the right direction", she told the Tribune. When they learned of the news, Our Lady of Victory and the two other schools spent their entire spring semester fundraising, aiming to replace deficits ranging from $200,000 to $400,000 that the archdiocese had been supplementing the last few years. St. Florian came up with $250,000, Our Lady raised $900,000 in pledges over the next three years, and St. Christopher secured a stunning $2 million in pledges, which, if honored, will keep the school operating on its own for at least eight years.

To demonstrate their commitment, John Clavio, the head of the finance committee at St. Christopher, recalled driving in a snowstorm to talk to people about the pledge drive to save the school. Eventually, more than 500 families pledged an average of $1,000 annually over five years. "The initial 10 days was nothing but adrenaline”, he noted. Meanwhile, at St. Florian, fundraisers heavily focused on restaurant drives, such as a pancake breakfast and raffles that brought thousands of dollars more than expected. St. Florian's “loaves and fishes story” included a Chicago Blackhawks jersey that was raffled and then returned four times before it raised $2,000. St. Florian took about six weeks to raise its money, which included around $100,000 in pledges, $100,000 in new tuition money and about $50,000 in cash. Within two weeks, they notified the Archdiocese's Office of Catholic Schools with their plan. Finally, the appropriately named Our Lady of Victory focused heavily on their alumni committee. Our Lady of Victory announced that in addition to new revenue, they were aiming to increase enrollment to 200 students this year. The marketing committee at Our Lady of Victory asked families to post photos of their summer vacations wearing school shirts reading "Stoke the Fire."

Thanks to the strong efforts of Catholic families in those three parishes, half of the Catholic schools slated for closure in the Archdiocese of Chicago this year will be returning this fall. It is a good reminder that with God, all things are possible.