By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 13, 2011
ATLANTA–Haile and Nigist Woldu last year traveled with their son Enoch by MARTA from their Auburn Avenue apartment in Atlanta to Decatur every weekday and then walked with him from the station to St. Thomas More School, overjoyed by the chance to give him a Catholic education like the one they received when they were growing up in Ethiopia.
This year Nigist Woldu has a car to drive Enoch and their younger son, Musse, who just started kindergarten, to the Catholic school and to her job at a Decatur preschool. The proud Catholic recalls her disbelief when she learned that her children were awarded scholarships at St. Thomas More through the Grace Scholars program.
“I didn’t believe it until he started school,” she said. “I grew up (in Ethiopia) going to Catholic school … so I wanted this. I’m very happy that I got that chance. … They have good discipline and the teachers are very good and the teachers are very social with the parents—I like everything.”
As her husband undergoes rehabilitation for a traumatic brain injury, he finds peace in knowing that his sons are building a solid foundation at St. Thomas More School. While he earned two master’s degrees in chemistry, he could never otherwise afford to send them to Catholic school with his long-term disability. The family worships at St. Thomas More Church, which he’s attended for over 10 years and where he has enjoyed fellowship with other Ethiopians. He sought asylum in the United States in the 1980s from a violent dictatorship in his homeland.
‘They love it’
“It is a blessing. They like it very much, they love it,” said Haile Woldu of his sons’ thoughts on school. “They are off to a very good start. I am so thankful.”
The Woldu boys are two of the approximately 450 Georgia children who have received the necessary financial aid to attend Catholic schools through the fast-growing GRACE Scholars program.
Standing for Georgia Residents Assisting Children’s Education, GRACE was established in 2008 by Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Bishop-emeritus J. Kevin Boland of the Diocese of Savannah in response to a new state law that allows up to $50 million of state income tax funds a year to be directed by taxpayers toward scholarship aid for new students starting in non-public schools.
The Catholic bishops established GRACE Scholars to fund need-based scholarships for students to attend diocesan Catholic schools in Georgia. Through the program, individuals and corporations can direct part of their taxes to GRACE Scholars, which is a certified student scholarship organization. Donors get their gift back as a tax credit when they file their taxes. In addition to having financial need, students must be transferring to a Catholic school from a public school to qualify or must be entering kindergarten or prekindergarten in a Catholic school.
As GRACE Scholars enters its fourth year, awareness is growing and the donation total is escalating. In 2010, 2,105 donors directed $3.7 million to GRACE Scholars, up from approximately $2.9 million given in 2009 by over 1,300 donors. Over $86,000 was given in the inaugural year of 2008.
Donors simply redirect money to Catholic school scholarships that they would otherwise be paying to the state. A married couple filing jointly can direct up to $2,500 and receive a tax credit for the same amount that lowers their state tax bill by up to $2,500. Individuals can direct up to $1,000 and corporations up to 75 percent of their taxes.
The deadline to donate for 2011 is fast approaching before the $50 million cap is reached. There are now 33 student scholarship organizations statewide—up from about 20 last year—raising funds for various non-public schools.
To participate, a Georgia resident each year must submit a form to the state, which can be downloaded from the GRACE Scholars website. The donor will receive confirmation from the Georgia Department of Revenue, typically in two to three weeks, allowing him or her to donate to GRACE within a 60-day period. A GRACE Scholar donor can direct that the donation be used to fund a scholarship at a particular diocesan Catholic school in Georgia, or divided among as many as three schools. Money can also be directed toward the most financially needy or left to the discretion of the GRACE Scholars board. At least 90 percent of the funds must be dispersed on scholarships. Students who are chosen as GRACE Scholars receive assistance each year they attend that Catholic school, as long as the financial need remains and the student meets academic standards.
David Brown, director of GRACE Scholars, urged people to complete the needed forms and make their donation by Nov. 1, if possible, before the
$50 million statewide cap is reached.
“As of a week ago, Georgia had issued over $30 million in credits, about twice what it was in 2010 at that time,” Brown said. “The message is to get the form in as soon as possible. Last year they got to $44 million as of Dec. 31, 2010, but (this year) the cap may be reached sometime in November.”
The program helps the archdiocese to realize its goal of making Catholic education more accessible and affordable to all families seeking it, said Dr. Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools.
“As more families are discovering the ease in which they can contribute to GRACE and the difference they can make in the life of a child, the GRACE Scholars student scholarship organization continues to grow,” she said. “GRACE Scholars is a win-win for all who choose to participate. Not only does one get to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit when filing state income taxes, one also gets to have a say in how their tax dollars are actually spent. In the end, the lives of children are positively impacted since families are able to choose a school that they believe best meets the needs of their children.”
More students, more diversity
Starkovich reported that during the past school year the archdiocese has experienced an increase in minority families with children in Catholic schools, particularly those of Asian and Hispanic ethnicity. For the current school year, total enrollment in archdiocesan schools has increased by approximately 150 students.
“GRACE scholarships have had an impact on stabilizing enrollment in some of our schools while maximizing enrollment in others,” she said.
Starkovich noted the U.S. bishops’ 2005 document “Recommitment to Catholic Education and Secondary Schools” that affirms the evangelistic role of schools in passing on the faith to the next generation and the responsibility of all Catholics, not just Catholic school parents, to support them for the benefit of the church and society.
“We owe it to our children to provide them the best education available—and our Catholic schools continue to offer strong faith formation and an academic education second to none. Catholic schools have a long-standing tradition of educating our children to be good citizens as well as people of faith who model service to our communities as well as to those who need our assistance,” she said.
In Lilburn, St. John Neumann Regional Catholic School has a total of 17 GRACE Scholars, an increase of seven this school year. Principal Alex Porto said that people typically are skeptical when they first learn of the program but gladly support it once they understand it.
St. John Neumann is promoting GRACE Scholars in the parishes where school families are active and seeks to increase fund raising from $41,000 in 2010 to $80,000 this year.
“Our main message is you can direct a portion of your tax money to Catholic education. It’s unbelievable that you can do that. Although that money can’t be used by families already in the school, it allows us to recruit new students and increase enrollment. It releases some of our funds that we would use (for financial aid) to try to do other things in the school,” Porto said. “This allows us to reach out to families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to send their children and we can give them that opportunity. It’s a fantastic program.”
A product of Catholic schools himself through college, Porto would gladly extend that gift to more students.
“The faith base and high level of academics, when you put those two together, that really forms and shapes you as a person,” he said.
At St. Thomas More School, admissions director Eileen Maron called the Woldu family a “wonderful family and addition to the community.”
St. Thomas More has 11 new GRACE students this year and five returning ones. The school finds the families to be very committed partners in offering their children a challenging Catholic education, the principal said.
“The benefit to the school is that the GRACE families are very active participants in our school community. They are often some of the biggest promoters of our school to the greater Decatur community,” said Terry Collis. “Overall, these students continue to achieve academic success and growth throughout the school year. St. Thomas More is certainly blessed to have the students and their families as part of our learning community.”