Catholic school backers on mission to serve Boston students

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BOSTON – Thauana Moura moved to Massachusetts from Brazil in 2000 when she was 11 years old.

Although she started off in the Everett public schools, by her sophomore year, Moura’s parents enrolled her at private Catholic school, Cristo Rey Boston High.

But her family could not afford the tuition, so Moura had to return to public school.

“I didn’t like it, and I wanted to switch back,” she said about leaving Cristo Rey.

So, without telling her parents, Moura, now 27, skipped school one day and walked into Cristo Rey by herself to ask for help.

Administrators at the parochial school connected her with the Inner City Scholarship Fund, a Catholic Schools Foundation program that enables students to afford Catholic education. With the organization’s help, Moura returned to Cristo Rey while paying just $70 a month, or about $630 for a school year. Current tuition for a Catholic school in the Boston area averages $4,200 annually.

The foundation’s mission is to provide families in need an opportunity to give their children not only a quality education but one that specifically focuses on Christian values and character formation.

Since 1983, the organization’s signature program, the Inner City Scholarship Fund, has helped about 4,000 students annually, enabling them to attend 89 of the 119 schools in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Seventy percent of the aid goes to elementary-aged students because that’s where the money has the greatest impact, said Mike Reardon, the foundation’s executive director.

“If you can get a kid early – pre-third grade – you can make up for some of the challenges that these kids face,” Reardon said in an interview. “The lower grades are game-changers in the life of a kid.”

Even with the foundation’s help for Moura, her parents couldn’t shoulder the financial strain of a private school. Determined, she worked after school at a McDonald’s restaurant to help cover the costs.

To many students, the cost is worth it. They often trade jeans for Catholic school uniforms to create a sense of community. Some students point to small classroom sizes and dedicated teachers as the most valuable part of their experience.

“In Catholic school, I felt like I had a family,” Moura said. “There were people watching over me and taking care of me.”

Even though she is not a Catholic, Moura said she benefited from the faith-based curriculum that “shapes children to be better people for our world” in its emphasis on accountability and values.

“All those things gave me a strong moral foundation and prepared me to assume leadership roles in life,” she said. “I honestly don’t think I would have made it this far if I hadn’t gone.”

“This far” means graduating from college, living in Boston and now working for the Catholic Scholarship Foundation in recruiting and admissions.

Foundation scholarships, which are often awarded as financial aid through a student’s school, average around 30 percent of tuition. The foundation requires every parent to contribute a portion of the cost as a way to provide a sense of dignity and to underline the value of the education.

In 1992, the organization elected former Fidelity Investments star money manager Peter Lynch as its president and chairman of the scholarship fund. Contributions to the foundation took off, including the addition of an endowment fund a year later.

Lynch, who attended Catholic school for a year as a child, but had to leave when his family could no longer afford it, has spent more than two decades trying to help cover the costs for underprivileged students who want to go to a Catholic school. Without Lynch, dozens of parochial schools in the Boston area would have shuttered their doors, Reardon said.

The goal, Reardon said, is to use Catholic education as a tool for social advancement. Although parochial schools were founded in part with a mission to serve populous immigrant communities, including Irish and Italian Catholics, today the foundation is working on identifying newer immigrant populations in need.

In 2009, the program launched an outreach initiative to the Hispanic community, funding 100 Latino students in its first year.

Currently, 72 percent of scholarship recipients are nonwhite; 60 percent come from single-parent homes.

Naomi Marinez, a junior at Boston’s Cristo Rey, said that a religious education for her is important to her family, especially her mother, who also attended a Catholic school.

Marinez, 16, who is a practicing Catholic, said she prefers a Catholic education to traditional public schools, which she attended before entering Cristo Rey because of the care the parochial school teachers exhibit and the one-on-one attention she receives.

But students don’t need to be Catholic to attend, and nearly a third of the foundation’s scholarship recipients, like Moura, don’t identify as Catholic.

Fortune Kalala, 22, immigrated to the U.S. from the Republic of the Congo at the age of 13. The foundation, he said, “had his back” when he didn’t have anything. Kalala attended Central Catholic High School in Lawrence and is now months away from graduating from Stonehill College, a Catholic university in Easton, with a degree in Healthcare Administration.

Kalala is not a Catholic. But, he said, the diverse experiences from attending a Catholic high school were valuable.

“I actually learned a lot more from going to a Catholic institution about diversity and inclusion versus public schools where religion isn’t talked about at all,” he said. “It’s shied away from, and it’s not very productive.”

Reardon said that it is the faith of faculty and staff that preserve the mission.

Reardon paraphrases an apostolic saying – “We have Catholic schools not because students are Catholic but because we’re Catholic.” — to sum up that mission.

“We started out by taking care of our own, but now we are asking how do we take care of our community,” he said. “There’s a great common good to that.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or @karabettis