Chicagoland

Tax-credit scholarships bringing more students into classrooms

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
October 24, 2018

Tax-credit scholarships bringing more students into classrooms

Tax-credit scholarships are helping many families keep their children in Catholic schools. Five schools celebrated in a public action Oct. 30, 2018, at St. Frances of Rome in Cicero.
Karla Pineda of the Interfaith Leadership Project introduces guests an an Oct. 30 public action for tax-credit scholarships at St. Frances of Rome School in Cciero. Families and officals from St. Albert the Great, St. Frances of Rome, Our Lady of Charity and St. Leonard spoke about how tax-credit scholarships have allowed them to keep children in Catholic schools. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A combined choir from Epiphany and St. Frances of Rome schools performs at an Oct. 30, 2018, tax-credit scholarship celebration. Five Catholic schools gathered at St. Frances of Rome School in Cicero for the tax-credit scholarship public action with Empower Illinois, the state's largest scholarship-granting organization. Families from St. Albert the Great, St. Francis of Rome, Our Lady of Charity and St. Leonard spoke about how tax-credit scholarships have allowed their children to attend Catholic schools. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Catholic school families listen to speakers at a public action for tax-credit schoalrshops Oct. 30, 2018, a St. Frances of Rome in Cicero. Families from St. Albert the Great, St. Frances of Rome, Our Lady of Charity and St. Leonard spoke about how tax-credit scholarships have helped thems end their children to Catholic schools. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A Boy Scout salutes during the posting of colors to begin a public action for tax-credit schoalrships at St. Frances of Rome in Cicero on Oct. 30, 2018.(Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Participants say the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a tax-credit schoalrship public action Oct. 30, 2018, at St. Frances of Rome School in Cicero. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
An Epiphany School student prays at an Oct. 30, 2018, gathering of five Catholic schools at St. Frances of Rome School in Cicero for a tax-credit scholarship public action with Empower Illinois, the largest scholarship-granting organization in the state. Families from St. Albert the Great, St. Francis of Rome, Our Lady of Charity and St. Leonard spoke about how tax-credit scholarships have allowed them to send theor children to Catholic schools. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Brianna Ayala speaks about why tax-cresit scholarships are important at St. Frances of Rome School in Cicero Oct. 30. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Karla Pineda of the Interfaith Leadership Project listens as Samuel Meraz talks aboit how tax-credit schoalrships have helped his family at an Oct. 30, 2018, tax-credit scholarship public action. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Catholic school families listen to speakers at a public action for tax-credit schoalrshops Oct. 30, 2018, a St. Frances of Rome in Cicero. Families from St. Albert the Great, St. Frances of Rome, Our Lady of Charity and St. Leonard spoke about how tax-credit scholarships have helped thems end their children to Catholic schools. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Karla Pineda of the Interfaith Leadership Project helps a speaker at an Oct. 30, 2018, tax-credit scholarship public action at St. Frances of Rome in Cicero. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Illinois Rep. Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero) greets the crowd at an Oct. 30 public action for tax-credit schoalrships at St. Frances of Rome in Cicero. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Illinois Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside), who attended Catholic schools, addresses the audience at an Oct. 30, 2018, tax0credit schalrship public action at St. Frances of Rome in Cicero. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Students hold a giant check for $1,930,187.72 from "Empower Illinois" representing 451 scholarships presented to families in Illinois legislative districts 23 and 24 at an Oct. 30 tax-credit scholarship public action at St. Frances of Rome in Cicero. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Catholic school families listen to speakers at a public action for tax-credit schoalrshops Oct. 30, 2018, a St. Frances of Rome in Cicero. Families from St. Albert the Great, St. Frances of Rome, Our Lady of Charity and St. Leonard spoke about how tax-credit scholarships have helped thems end their children to Catholic schools. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Elected officials and other invited guests stand for the final blessing at a public action for tax-credit schoalrships Oct. 30, 2018, at St. Frances of Rome in Cicero. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

To see the effect of Illinois’ new tax-credit scholarships, Melissa Wilson, principal of St. Benedict School in Blue Island, need look no further than the kindergarten classroom.

There are 22 kindergartners in the class this year. Last year, before the scholarships were available, there were eight kindergartners.

“These scholarships really took a load off a lot of parents,” said Wilson, who has seen the school’s total enrollment grow from 154 to 176 students. “And it’s been good for our bottom line. Fiscally, it’s helped us a ton.”

The scholarships were created as part of a comprehensive education funding bill passed in 2017. Illinois income tax payers can donate to non-profit scholarship granting organizations and receive a 75 percent credit on their state income taxes.

Families apply to the schools of their choice and to scholarship-granting organizations that work with them, with priority given to the lowest-income families. How much each scholarship is worth also depends on the applicant’s household income.

The program was capped at $100 million, with about half earmarked for schools in the Chicago area. The state has authorized just over $50 million in contributions, with close to $40 million going to Cook County and another $7.4 million going to the region of northern Illinois that includes Lake County.

The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Catholic Schools said 112 of its schools received a total of 3,100 scholarships with a value of about $13.7 million. That does not include schools run by religious communities, such as most high schools in the archdiocese, or private Catholic schools not affiliated with the archdiocese.

Overall, 68 students at St. Benedict are receiving scholarships worth more than $330,000, Wilson said. But more students are benefiting, because financial aid that the school provides can now go to other students who did not receive tax-credit scholarships. Most of the scholarships came through Empower Illinois; two came from the Big Shoulders Fund.

“We’re in a working-class and lower-middle class area,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of families who might have wanted to send their kids to Catholic school, but couldn’t afford to. And now our eighth-graders who have scholarships can think about Catholic high schools.”

With more students come more parents as well, she said, which makes for more potential volunteers and a more vibrant school community.

To make the scholarships happen, Wilson and her staff got the word out to families and helped them understand the process and scan their documents and get everything ready for their applications, she said.

“We worked really, really hard,” she said.

One of the beneficiaries is the son of Sofia Sierra-Aguilera, a sixth-grader who has been at St. Benedict since preschool.

“His two older siblings are in college, so we’re stretched very thin right now,” said Sierra-Aguilera, whose husband has not been able to work since an accident last year.

She’s thrilled that the scholarship made it possible for her son to stay at St. Benedict.

“There’s a real sense of family there,” she said, adding that it’s the kind of place where everyone looks out for one another.

St. Agnes School in Chicago Heights, where 98 students — more than half the school’s total enrollment of 195 — are benefiting for the scholarships also worked hard to spread the word among continuing families, said Matthew Lungaro, the principal.

Still, the scholarships helped several new families, and made it possible for many more continuing school families to remain. It has also allowed Lungaro to hire some extra help, look to update curricula and sleep a bit better at night.

With just over a half-million dollars of tax-credit scholarships, St. Agnes tops the list of archdiocesan schools receiving money. Our Lady of Charity in Cicero, with just under $500,000 in tax-credit scholarships, is next on the list.

About 120 of Our Lady of Charity’s 248 students are receiving scholarships through Empower Illinois, according to assistant principal Jonathan Priest.

“For a while last year I felt like the town crier for tax-credit scholarships,” Priest said. “We talked about it all the time.”

While most of the students who received scholarships were existing students, the enrollment jumped by more than 30 students, from 217 last year, Priest said, and the school was able to use other financial aid money for new students who did not receive tax-credit scholarships and the school has been able to add Spanish classes.

“A lot of our students speak some conversational Spanish with their families, but this has allowed us to add academic Spanish,” he said.

The school has also added a teacher to help with language arts and math for grades three to five and is piloting a one-to-one iPad program in middle school.

 

For more information on tax-credit scholarships, including how to donate, visit the website of the Office for Catholic Schools at schools.archchicago.org.

Topics:

  • catholic schools
  • tax credit scholarships

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