Archdiocese distributes $1.4 million Gratitude Fund to teachers, school staff

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, February 3, 2021

A teacher instructs students at Queen of the Rosary School in Elk Grove Village on Aug. 17, 2020, during the first week of in-person classes in archdiocesan schools. The Archdiocese of Chicago distributed $1.4 million from its Gratitude Fund to teachers, administrators and staff in archdiocesan Catholic schools to recognize the work they have done during the pandemic. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

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The Office of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago had two extra things to celebrate as it observed Catholic Schools Week, which this year took place from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6.

The first was the $1.4 million Gratitude Fund that gave monetary awards to all educators and staff — full- and part-time — who work in archdiocesan schools. The second was impressive test results from the i-Ready assessment exam, which showed that students in archdiocesan schools exceeded national averages during the pandemic.

Both are worth highlighting during Catholic Schools Week, an annual celebration of the importance and uniqueness of faith-based education, school leaders said.

Through the $1.4 million Gratitude Fund, full-time employees, no matter their role as principal, teacher, maintenance staff or other support staff, received $250, which was added to their paychecks on Feb. 5. Part-time staff received up to $100, depending on the number of hours they work each week.

There are about 5,000 employees in 159 archdiocesan schools.

“The idea originated with just an outpouring of gratitude on the part of the Archdiocese of Chicago and, as chairman of the school board, we also had a generous outpouring of gratitude from the board for our heroic essential workers,” said Geno Fernandez, president of the archdiocesan school board.

The archdiocese started raising money for the Gratitude Fund in early December, and over the period of a month received donations, not just from regular and new donors but from corporations that don’t regularly give to faith-based causes, said Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic Schools.

“I think there was recognition that our educators and school employees truly had gone above and beyond this year,” he said.

Teachers, administrators and staff are on the front lines educating children and keeping the schools open when many schools are only engaged in remote learning, Fernandez said.

He has been part of many fundraising campaigns and has not seen such a quick response of support.

“I have never seen such a unanimous response from major donors, pastors and leaders of parishes, community members and corporations in the Chicagoland area than I have seen in this response,” he said. “I made a lot of calls, but I’d say they were the easiest calls I’ve ever made in 15 years.”

Like many others, Fernandez personally appreciates how educators and staff at archdiocesan schools have responded to the pandemic.

“Every parent that I talk to, not just as a member of the school board, but as a father, the overwhelming amount of gratitude for the Catholic school system in Chicago is palpable and the Gratitude Fund is a token of the gratitude,” he said. 

Educators, administrators and school staff implemented a wide array of health and safety protocols that allowed the schools to reopen for in-person education last fall.

“They have trained their students and monitored those students in those protocols,” Rigg said, adding that many teachers are educating both in-person and remote students. “Because of their exceptional work, we feel that we were justified in raising funds and then giving them a special gift in recognition of their service.”

The second big news the Office of Catholic Schools celebrated during Catholic Schools Week came from the i-Ready standardized assessment exam that showed students in archdiocesan school performed much better this year than the national average, despite the pandemic.

In November, national results of the i-Ready test — which evaluates students’ aptitude in math and reading — over the last year were released.

The data showed students in predominantly white schools were 1.2 to two months behind in their learning and students in predominantly non-white schools were three to five months behind, according to Paula Fernandez, director of strategic execution and analytics for the Office of Catholic Schools.

She compared the national data to local results to see how the children in archdiocesan schools performed.

“What I found that was most startling and extremely joy-making was that neither of those large subgroups experienced drop offs. In fact, both of those groups experienced 100 percent of learning growth expectations,” she said. “So not only our overall student body but also the subgroups — English language learners and those who go to high poverty schools — all of them achieved 100% or more of growth expectations in both reading and math. This absolutely bucks the trend.”

Such positive results validate the work educators have done and continue to do to in adjusting to the realities of the pandemic, Rigg said.

“We announced the move to virtual learning on Friday, March 13, and most of our schools were up with virtual learning the following Monday. I know a lot of other school systems took days or even weeks to fully implement virtual learning and even then, there were struggles as to quality,” he said. “I think, again, due to the hard work of our educators, we were able to pivot very quickly and continue quality learning throughout the spring and then, of course, this year we’ve been able to open up our schools for in-person learning.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago schools implemented the i-Ready test as a pilot in 91 schools during the 2018-2019 school year. The Office of Catholic Schools now requires its use district-wide for kindergarten through second grade and endorses its use through eighth grade. 

Previously, the office used the ACT Aspire assessment for students in grades three through eight. That assessment is administered only once a year, Rigg said. The office identified a need to implement an assessment for younger grades and chose i-Ready, which is administered three times a year and comes with instructional supports for teachers.

“It’s been adopted much more widely,” Paula Fernandez said. “I think partly because of the need for remote learning tools that there was a much bigger uptick for third through eighth grade this year than we would have expected in the absence of COVID.”

She was able to compare two years of data from the 7,500 students who participated the pilot program. While that’s much less than the 45,000 students in archdiocesan schools, it was a large enough number from which to glean accurate data, Fernandez said.

Rigg credits the success to the dedication of educators, administrators and staff to the unique mission of Catholic schools.


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  • catholic schools week

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