Catholic educators’ fund seeks to retain top talent

By Karen Baker, Contributing Writer
Photo Courtsey St. Peter School, Covington

“Wasn’t this already a thing?”

That’s the reaction Colin MacIver says he often gets when explaining the Catholic Educators Scholarship created by the six Catholic schools in western St. Tammany last year.

MacIver, campus minister and theology chair at St. Scholastica Academy in Covington, said the “thing” is this: Children of Catholic school teachers now get a $500 tuition discount no matter which Catholic school they attend in western St. Tammany.

For MacIver and his wife, Aimee, also a teacher at St. Scholastica, that means tuition discounts for their two children at St. Peter School in Covington.

MacIver was one of several speakers at dinner on May 20 hosted by St. Peter School Board member Jeff LaCour and his wife Jackie. The dinner was held to raise awareness of the scholarship and to raise money for the St. Peter fund.

LaCour said the idea for the scholarship program started as a conversation he had with a friend who works in ministry. He said his friend saw a Facebook post about how Catholic teachers can’t afford to send their own children to Catholic schools.

LaCour said he was surprised and concerned, and so he met with St. Peter principal Michael Kraus.

Agreement across the board

LaCour and Kraus brought the idea for a tuition discount for teachers to the School Board, and eventually Kraus met with the other five Catholic school principals in west St. Tammany: Christian Brother Ray Bulliard of St. Paul’s School, Cissy Laforge of St. Scholastica Academy, Dominican Father Charles Latour of Archbishop Hannan High School; Sybil Skansi of Mary Queen of Peace; and Frank Smith of Our Lady of the Lake.

“The six principals all got on board and signed a letter” in May 2018 agreeing to the program, Kraus said, and St. Peter awarded 26 $500 scholarships last school year to students whose parents teach in other area Catholic schools.

“The No. 1 job of a Catholic school principal is finding talent,” Kraus said. “Offering the tuition break is a game-changer. … We want to broaden the net for dynamic men and women of faith,” he said, adding the other principals are also very enthusiastic about the scholarship.

“Our hope is to support Catholic education and, in particular, our own faculty so that their children have the opportunity to receive the same outstanding, faith-based education that is being provided for Catholic school students on a daily basis,” Laforge said.

Each school is responsible for creating its own fund, Kraus added.  “Our goal is to go much higher” than the $500 award. “St. Peter’s goal is to raise a $3 million endowment.”

“It’s kind of a no-brainer,” LaCour said. “It’s easy to get behind.”

LaCour and his wife have three daughters at St. Peter and two young boys at home.

“We want teachers staying; we want their children staying,” he said. “I think this is the start of something beautiful.”

“It’s a beautiful witness to Catholic education being available to all people,” said Father Colm Cahill, parochial vicar at St. Peter. “It is great to see the schools working together, which shows collegiality. We share a common faith and Catholicity. Whether or not this program is successful,” he said, is not as important as whether it can answer the question: “How much do you believe in Catholic education?”

Incredible collaboration

Another great outcome of the program, Father Cahill said, is that it has all of the west St. Tammany Catholic principals “working together for a common objective we believe in. I’m surprised it has taken this long” for the idea to take root. “If anything, it will bring people together and make this a priority; that’s worth its weight.”

The dinner on May 20 attracted passionate supporters of the idea. Don and Gerry Sustendal have three grandchildren at St. Peter, three at Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville and one at St. Scholastica. They are big supporters of the educators’ scholarship fund, so much so that Don Sustendal wrote a check to his alma mater, De La Salle, to support their educators scholarship fund. The only thing is, he said, is this: He learned that no such fund exists in New Orleans. “But I am planting seeds,” he added.

The Catholic Community Foundation is also looking to support the fund. Gus Kuntz, president of board of directors of the foundation, said: “I taught for years. I know what teachers are getting. I know what they are going through and what principals are going through” in Catholic schools. “I hope it (the tuition discount) sticks.”

Shannon Francis, a public school counselor whose husband Jim teaches at St. Paul’s, said: “Catholic teachers are in ministry; they are forming my child and that’s a wonderful gift. … We need to work as a community to help build” support for them.

A pro-life issue

“We want this to be a pro-life culture,” LaCour said. “I hope this spreads like wildfire. It’s a noble cause.”

St. Peter raised much of its first year funds for the program through the #iGiveCatholic giving day in the fall.

Kraus said one of his good friends, Tommy Ferrara, saw a Facebook post about the giving day and donated $5,000.

“Both of my parents were teachers in Catholic schools, and I am a product of that,” Ferrara said. “I want to pay it forward and help teachers, to ease their burden of a tight budget. I would love to see this take off,” said Ferrara, who lives in Atlanta and graduated from Archbishop Rummel with Kraus.

MacIver and his wife, Aimee, meanwhile, are enthusiastic:  “We want to see this grow,” he said of the scholarship fund. His wife agrees.

“This year I had 97 ‘daughters’ in Catholic schools,” she said. “This fund helps me teach my classroom daughters while providing for my daughter at home.”

So now that the Catholic educators’ scholarship “is a thing,” Colin MacIver said, “how can we make it contagious?”

Karen Baker is a contributing writer for the Clarion Herald.

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