Whoever said life is cheaper by the dozen probably never had to confront the modern dilemma of paying for a quality Catholic school education.
In the years preceding and immediately following WWII, the thousands of women and men entering religious life and the priesthood guaranteed an inexpensive, virtually inexhaustible and superbly qualified pool of teachers in Catholic schools across the country.
It wasn’t unheard of for parochial schools to be free for the children of regular parishioners. Or, if the Catholic school did charge tuition, the cost might have been only a few dollars a month.
Not only was Catholic education considered a vital parish ministry, supported by the regular collection basket, but the parochial school also was able to survive and even thrive on a shoestring budget because the religious sisters, brothers and priests who comprised the faculty were paid very little.
The current reality of providing a Catholic school education – many elementary schools can cost more than $4,000 and high schools more than $9,000 a year – is far different from that bygone era, particularly for a large family.
And then you meet Jeannine and Robby Knecht of New Orleans, parents of seven (one girl followed by six boys), who have sent all of their children to Catholic schools even though neither is a neurosurgeon or a corporate lawyer.
Red beans – or steak?
The Knechts have decided the sacrifices – eating pork chops and red beans and rice instead of steak and forgoing family vacations – have been worth it.
Sometimes, though, their tight budget has been difficult to accept, especially around Christmas.
Robby was a member of the men’s club at St. Pius X Parish in New Orleans, which sponsored a gift-giving program for children in an inner-city parish.
“I used to drive the U-Haul truck with all of our donated gifts, and I’m thinking, ‘They don’t even have a clue that I can’t really afford gifts for my kids for Christmas,’” said Robby, who works for the U.S. State Department.
Jeannine is a librarian and language arts teacher at The Visitation of Our Lady School in Marrero, where the youngest of their children, Ambrose, is entering the sixth grade.
“I had never gone to public school, and it was never even a thought that my kids would go to public school,” Jeannine said. “We wanted a large family.”
When Robby put a pencil to the cost of rearing seven children in Catholic schools thus far, he came up with a rough figure of $532,000, which includes a $39,000 loan the Knechts took out to fund Jeannine’s teacher certification degree at the University of Holy Cross.
That figure would have been even higher had not the Knechts received generous tuition assistance from several elementary and high schools. Brother Martin High School, for instance, has offered help through work-study programs. Many of the children also benefit from scholarships (provided by the Champions of Catholic Education fund), grants and sibling discounts from the schools they attend.
Choices in budgeting
The Knechts have done it all without any family financial help.
“We could’ve moved to English Turn – just kidding,” Robby said. “It was and will be well worth it. Catholic schools provided a solid foundation for years with God in the middle of every day, safety, discipline, order and an established regimen for their college years.”
Here’s a rundown of the Knecht children’s Catholic school experience:
• Caroline, 22, went to St. Pius X and Ursuline Academy and recently graduated from Loyola University New Orleans. She is in her first year of graduate school for speech pathology at the LSU School of Allied Health in New Orleans.
• Alexander, 20, attended St. Francis Xavier School and Holy Cross and is now a junior at the University of New Orleans.
• August, 19, went to St. Francis Xavier and Brother Martin and is considering entering the U.S. Army.
• Andrew, 17, graduated from St. Francis Xavier and is a senior at Brother Martin.
• Forrest, 14, graduated from Visitation of Our Lady and is a freshman at Brother Martin.
• Nickolas, 13, attended Visitation of Our Lady and is an eighth-grader at Brother Martin.
• Ambrose, 11, is entering the sixth grade at Visitation.
“I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to live the life I’ve lived so far,” said Caroline, who worked as an assistant cross country coach at Ursuline, her alma mater, while attending Loyola. “My parents have always gone above and beyond to provide everything we need. Many hardships come with raising a family, but my parents have put their needs after the kids’ needs.”
Caroline said what impresses her the most about her parents’ sacrificial nature is their determination to think of the kids first.
“They never go on dates, and they put their kids before anything else,” Caroline said. “Their love for us has always been there. There are no favorites in the family, and everyone is treated the same. Coming from a big family, I’ve learned responsibility and how to be independent. My parents have fostered those principles in me.”
The only slight detours in their children’s exclusive Catholic schooling were taken by Alexander and August, who decided to finish their secondary education at a public math and science academy.
“I never knew if we made the right decision in the long run,” Robby said. “The public school was a very good school with a good faculty, but it definitely had its challenges. To tell you the truth, if I absolutely had the money, they would’ve never left.
“Some really good things came out of that public school, but when you’re not in a Catholic environment, it’s different. It’s important to have God at the center of the day.”
In addition to his regular job, Robby has worked extra jobs to try to balance the family’s books. At night, he used to unload produce from 18-wheelers at a Winn-Dixie.
“It’s not that I can’t handle the weight of the lifting, but it was the overwhelming feeling that when that truck door opened, I saw 50 pallets,” Robby said.
He also worked at a dry cleaners and jumps at any chance for overtime at his regular job.
“All our kids have helped out, too,” Robby said. “Caroline worked at the bookstore at Ursuline for reduced tuition. Alexander worked at Holy Cross and worked at Winn-Dixie. August worked at Rite Aid. Andrew now works as a buggy boy at Winn-Dixie. They’ve all helped.”
Usually, the Knecht children bring their lunches to school.
“We’re making 50 turkey sandwiches every morning,” Robby said, exaggerating only a little.
Forget the ‘deluxe’ package
Extras like school pictures and senior rings have to be considered carefully.
“By the time we got the three 5-by-7 photos and the 12 wallet-sized photos, it was $100,” Robby said. “We didn’t get the deluxe packages. It took me all this year to pay my son’s ring off.”
Through the kindness of neighbors who own a condo on the beach in Alabama, the Knechts take a one-week vacation every year. “We only have to pay $250 for the maid instead of $1,150, so that’s a blessing,” Robby said.
Robby’s office is at Canal Place, but he parks outside the French Quarter on the street and walks 12 blocks, saving the parking fee.
“But I’m kind of glad because I’m finally starting to drop a little weight,” Robby said. “I know where all the broken (parking) meters are. When they start putting meters out by the Chef or Venetian Isles, then we know there’s a problem.”
The Knechts make it all work by sticking to a family routine. Jeannine gets up at 4:30 every morning, prepares breakfast and the lunch sandwiches. Even though they live in Venetian Isles and Jeannine works in Marrero, she has never been late to work at Visitation.
“They’re really impressed,” Jeannine says. When Jeannine was getting her teacher’s certificate at night at the University of Holy Cross, twice a week she would drive to Algiers with her three youngest children, and Robby would pick them up before completing the school pickup rounds at Ursuline and Brother Martin.
“I’m glad we didn’t have any trouble with the safe environment (policy),” Robby said. “The kids would be sitting there by the statue of Mary on General Degaulle.”
The Knechts believe the family’s sacrifices have positively affected their children.
“All of our kids have different personalities, but they’re all very meek,” Robby said. “None of them have ever asked for things because it’s unspoken. They know what I can and can’t do. There is no savings (account). To tell you the truth, I’m not really worried about it because I always think God has a plan. We live our life on that. What bothers me the most is that my kids who needed braces had to wait longer than they should have.”
Jeannine said she does not want to discourage her children from having large families, and she see the benefits of the children helping each other out.
“They fight some, but there is a bond and there is definitely teamwork,” Jeannine said. “They’re really close.”
Recently, Robby attended a father-son prayer circle at Brother Martin when he had a chance to speak up to the teens and other fathers in the room about the difference between Catholic and public schools.
“I told the kids, ‘Having kids in both school systems, I know the difference. You may not realize it, but having God at the center of things and having the discipline and safety are so important. All your teachers know your name. Those five years mold you for life.’”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.