By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 3, 2009
Some Catholic schools are seeing an uptick of students as GRACE scholarships are handed out for the first time to help parents with costly tuition bills.
Some 43 new students received the $2,000 scholarship and enrolled in archdiocesan schools as the academic year began. More than 80 hopefuls applied for the money, according to Diane Starkovich, the school superintendent in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
“Certainly more students would attend Catholic schools if the parents were able to access financial aid. We are thrilled that we have been able to assist families in securing a Catholic education for their children; however, we’d like to help a lot more make this a reality,” she wrote in an e-mail.
GRACE, or Georgia Residents Assisting Children’s Education, is the student scholarship organization established by the Atlanta Archdiocese and the Savannah Diocese. It is one of nearly 20 organizations that distribute scholarships when Georgia taxpayers “redirect” part of their state income tax to the student organizations. The payment is a tax credit against their state tax bill.
Our Lady of Mercy High School, in Fayetteville, has six new freshmen benefiting from the GRACE scholarship at the 272-student school. It is the single largest group of scholarship students in the archdiocesan school system. But within GRACE, 15 scholarship students entered St. Vincent Academy in Savannah through the restriction of a large donation to that school.
(Marist School, an independent Catholic school, had 10 students receive scholarships under a different program. Marist does not participate in GRACE, but another student scholarship organization called GOAL, Greater Opportunities for Access to Learning.)
Our Lady of Mercy High School principal Danny Dorsel said his school is a popular choice, but economics puts its $10,440 tuition out of reach for potential students. About half of the students receive financial assistance.
“Students and families want to be here if we can make it happen for them. There is great need in our area. GRACE has definitely brought new families to us,” he said.
For the Walker family, they leaned toward Our Lady of Mercy High School because its tuition was within reach, although the family would have to stretch the dollars to make it work. They received the $2,000 scholarship.
“It made it a lot more affordable. It made it less of a panic” about paying for the school, said Chelsea Walker.
The family lives in Union City, about five miles from the school. She learned about the school when her daughter’s charter public school told parents about private and parochial school alternatives. And while they aren’t Catholic, the school provides a good education, said Walker.
Kaliyah, a ninth-grader, has taken to her new school and joined the dance team.
“Last night, she said she loved the school. I’m glad we made that decision. They are a very loving school. They always have open arms,” said Walker.
Donors to GRACE can help others and themselves, she said.
“It is a good opportunity to help someone you may not know. You don’t know how you can lift the burden off a family who wants their children to have a good education. On top of that, it’s a tax write-off,” she said.
Rakio Brand, 40, father of ninth-grader Rachelle Brown, is breathing easier with the scholarships to cover all the tuition for his daughter to attend the school, including the GRACE money.
The school was the first choice for the family, said Brand, who works in telecommunications.
“We were welcomed and well received,” he said about the school. “It really means a lot to us that she could go.”
As for the donors, Brand said, “I don’t know who supplied the money, but I’d love to thank them.”
Not every school benefited from GRACE scholarships, but principals are talking up the program to parents.
As Kathryn Wood, principal at Queen of Angels School, put it, “Every little bit helps during these tough financial times.”
The Roswell school does not have any GRACE scholarship students. Wood said one student was on track to get the scholarship, but the school’s tuition remained out of reach.
Overall, more than 1,800 donors gave close to $5 million to all tax-credit scholarship organizations in Georgia last year, according to the Georgia Department of Revenue.
But donations to the Catholic organization trickled in during the first year, earning some $86,000 last year.
Taxpayers or corporations who give to a scholarship organization can get a dollar-for-dollar credit against state income taxes. For example, a married couple donating the $2,500 maximum for couples can lower their state tax bill by $2,500. Individual taxpayers are limited to $1,000, and corporations, up to 75 percent of their state taxes.
GRACE leaders are working to get the word out about the program because they believe there is an untapped potential to make Catholic education more affordable.
Dorsel said telling people about the program would go a long way. The high school is putting on an information session about the program and always puts information on tables at parent events, he said.
“It’s all about education, literally. Catholics need to be educated on what GRACE is, how simple it is to participate, how a tax credit differs from a donation, and most importantly, how much it can impact a child’s ability to receive a Catholic education,” he said.
This is the first in a two-part series about GRACE scholarships. The next story Sept. 17 will discuss changes to the program to encourage more donors.