By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published May 12, 2016
SMYRNA—Welcoming new students to archdiocesan schools is the goal of a pilot tuition reduction grant program announced May 12 by the Office of Catholic Schools.
The Welcome Grant program of the Archdiocese of Atlanta will provide reduced tuition to families who want to give Catholic schools a try.
The archdiocesan grant program is modeled after like programs in the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.
“One of the big concerns in the country is to make Catholic schools accessible and affordable, particularly to those families desiring a Catholic education for their child. In light of that a couple of dioceses in the country have implemented strategies,” said Rebecca Hammel, associate superintendent of schools in Atlanta.
In Allentown, the welcome grants are offered to new students for one school year, and in Omaha, for two years.
“We are following suit with Omaha in offering a two-year program, and so the goal is to incentivize families who have felt Catholic education is out of reach for them,” said Hammel.
The Welcome Grant program is for Catholic students not currently enrolled in a Catholic school. Students should be entering pre-kindergarten through seventh grade or ninth through 11th grades. Ten grants each will be offered at three elementary schools and one high school in the archdiocese for a total of 40 grants. The eligible schools are Our Lady of Victory School in Tyrone; St. Peter Claver Regional School in Decatur; St. John Neumann Regional School in Lilburn; and Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fayetteville.
New students attending an elementary school will be granted $2,500 toward tuition for year one and $1,500 in year two. New high school students will be granted $4,000 in year one and $2,500 the second school year.
The application window for Welcome Grants is June 1 through Aug. 1 and interested families should visit www.welcomegrantsatl.com to apply. Applications are time-stamped and grants will be made available on a first-come, first-served basis.
“We want to bring them in the door, offer them this excellent opportunity for education and work with them and show them it is affordable, not only through this but through varying financial assistance at the school level if they qualify for that,” said Hammel.
“Truly, it’s ‘come and see what we’re about’,” said Hammel. “We’re going to make it easier on you for two years.”
Four schools have room for more students
Hammel said in Allentown, the tuition grant program had a 95 percent return rate after the grants expired, indicating it was successful in introducing parents to Catholic schools and helping them find ways to fund tuition themselves.
“And we hope our families will follow suit, but for those families that do need and qualify for financial assistance, our schools do have those resources,” emphasized Hammel.
If financial need is present, the Welcome Grant and financial aid can be used together.
The four participating schools were selected on the basis of enrollment and having capacity to accept new students.
All parents with children in archdiocesan schools will receive a letter explaining the new grant program.
“When we can bring in more students, even at a discounted rate, that increases tuition revenue, which therefore helps maintain and sustain the amount of operational costs,” said Hammel. “Everyone will see the benefit.”
Hammel added that the four school communities participating will be able to strengthen programs for all students because of increased revenue from tuition.
“We feel it’s a win-win for all,” she said.
The funding source for the Welcome Grants will be from reserve parish assessments, paid by the archdiocese directly to the schools.
“This is back-funded. We already have the money for it,” explained Hammel, who has been overseeing the program’s rollout.
“It’s not a new assessment. We’re not increasing,” said Hammel.
“When I first heard about the program, I thought we need to give this a try,” said Dr. Diane Starkovich, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. “We need to get a little creative in how we’re marketing to our families.”
She acknowledged that some parents look at the price of school, and say, “I can’t do it.”
Annual surveys indicate that 95 percent of parents of archdiocesan students are very satisfied with the educational experience of their children, noted Starkovich.
“When I arrived 10 years ago, the first thing the archbishop said to me was ‘affordable and accessible.’ Those are the two words he has used with me,” she said.
Starkovich said Atlanta is not immune to enrollment challenges and it’s been valuable to look at what other dioceses have implemented.
She presented the Welcome Grant idea to the Archdiocesan School Advisory Council and to the Secretariat before finalizing implementation. A volunteer group of parents with marketing expertise has also studied the program.
“We’ve had good feedback,” she said. “And we’re going to give it a shot and see where it goes.”
Starkovich added that if Welcome Grants are a success, they could perhaps be extended to outlying schools where enrollment is lower.
“It’d be ideal to grow the program, and it’d be ideal to grow the program for non-Catholic children needing a better option for education,” agreed Hammel.
“I think the goal of all of us should be to bring in as many students to our Catholic schools as desire to be there, especially for our Catholic families,” said Starkovich.
Increasing enrollment adds revenue, which “helps all of these schools address all of the children in a better fashion and increases long-term viability,” she added.
Starkovich attended the World Congress on Catholic Education in Rome last November and recalled the words of Pope Francis to educators from across the world.
“He said to us, ‘You have to be risk-takers’,” she said. “Take a risk. Try it. If you fall down, pick up your leg and try something else.”
Elementary schools waiving testing, application fees
The Office of Catholic Schools staff will track the academic progress of Welcome Grant students and see how their faith life has grown as well.
All initial information from families applying will be collected on the website.
“When a family applies to Welcome Grants, that reserves a grant for them and then they go through the admission process at the school,” said Hammel.
The school is then notified and will contact the family. The family has 10 days to get in touch with the school and initiate the admission paperwork before the grant opportunity is given to another family.
If families have several children, each child can apply for a Welcome Grant.
“Our elementaries are waiving all testing and application fees,” said Hammel. “There is absolutely no risk in trying.”
The participating high school will refund application fees for those students not accepted. Final decisions for admission are at the discretion of the school administrator. A parish verification form must be secured for each applying child.
Pastors of parishes within 15 miles of each school have received letters about the Welcome Grants, encouraging them to spread the word to parents.
Starkovich encourages all families, whether or not they receive a Welcome Grant, to contact schools about ways to finance a Catholic education.
“Some of our schools get creative; they do 12-month payments. Just talk to the school,” said Starkovich. “If they truly have financial need, there’s financial aid available, but you’ve got to establish that financial need.”
Starkovich remembers a grandfather she knew as a school administrator in Texas. The man held the patent to a pet kennel and used his profits to write tuition checks for all of his 13 grandchildren at the beginning of each school year.
The man said to her, “You never get a second chance to raise your children. You’ve got to do it right the first time. So if you’re going to take a chance, don’t you want to take a chance on a school that teaches the same faith you’re teaching your children?”
“That’s always stayed with me,” said Starkovich.