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Scholarships Succeed in Pennsylvania Catholic School

Step inside the Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, located almost 70 miles east of Pittsburgh, and there are palpable examples of how faith figures into the educational experience of highly motivated students with ambitions for college. 

There’s the chapel located right in the center of campus, which serves as the site for masses, prayer services, and alumni reunions. Crucifixes are also prominently displayed in classrooms and administrative offices. Then there is the curriculum, which includes a strong emphasis on theological instruction. But more than anything, it’s the Catholic community itself that includes not just the student body, but parents, teachers, athletic coaches, alumni, scholarship organizations, and average citizens who recognize they all have a stake in creating compelling alternatives to failed public schools. (READ MORE from Kevin Mooney: Is Educational Freedom Poised to Transcend Union Power?)

Bishop McCort draws from 20 school districts with some students doing an hour commute to and from each day. Unlike its government-run counterparts, Bishop McCort remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic and attracted 150 transfer students from districts that were closed. There are currently 248 students in grades 7-12, but the school’s full capacity is 1,000. 

Escaping the Violence and Finding a Career Path

Geographically, two of the students who transferred in this current school year did not have far to travel. The two 16-year-olds, one in the 11th grade and the other in 10th, previously attended the Greater Johnstown High School within easy walking distance of Bishop McCort. But to hear them tell it, they now occupy a radically different universe from the one they left.

“The public school was just a very violent school,” the 11th grader said. “There were always fights, and it just wasn’t safe. There were fights everywhere, in the hallways, in the bathroom, in the classroom. I would say we have ten times better education here than at Johnstown.”

The 10th grader had many of the same experiences at Johnstown and now finds he is on a more compelling path that could lead to college and a career.

But ultimately, it falls on lawmakers … to provide parents with more autonomy over their own tax dollars.

“It just seemed like the teachers at Johnstown just didn’t care,” he said. “Every period there were always students in the hallway and it’s so loud.”

Both students expressed a strong interest in the sports medicine curriculum at Bishop McCort, which is open to 11th and 12th graders. The advancement in medical techniques has helped to open up new career opportunities, they explained. The transfer students are also fans of the 4-day school week Bishop McCort implemented last year with an optional “Friday Enrichment Day.”

“I think it works well,” the 11th-grader said. “I have extra time to study, and the enrichment classes are very worthwhile.” The enrichment period includes SAT prep, tutoring services, science fairs, and college visits. 

The graduation requirements and expectations are rigorous. Each student must take at least seven periods of classes each semester, including the five core classes in mathematics, science, English, social studies, and theology.

The Benefits and Limits of Scholarships

Like other private schools across the state, Bishop McCort benefits from a tax credit scholarship program dating back to 2001. While the scholarships continue to have a transformative impact on students and their families, there is a significant gap between supply and demand, Tom Smith, the Bishop McCort principal, laments. 

“We could fill this school if we didn’t have these arbitrary caps on the scholarship programs,” Smith says. “And I think you would see the Johnstown High School, and others empty out.”

Formally known as the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), these programs put private school tuition within reach of families that could not otherwise afford to attend a school like Bishop McCort. In the 2021-2022 school year, scholarship organizations drawing from both programs delivered 77,640 awards to K-12 students, according to the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank based in Harrisburg that supports school choice. (READ MORE: Pennsylvania: School Choice Proponents Poised to Extend Lifeline Scholarships to Students)

On average, the scholarship amount for EITC was $2,583, and $1,853 for OSTC. Pennsylvania students submitted about 139,000 scholarship applications, but 63,000 student applicants were turned away because of the caps the state legislature has placed on the program.

Bishop McCort has awarded financial aid in the form of EITC, endowment money, and names scholarships to 292 students. Scholarship applicants must be below the household income limit of $108,444, plus $19,088 for each dependent. That’s not exactly a problem in Johnstown since it’s been listed as the poorest city in the entire state. 

But time is a factor for families that stand to benefit from new avenues for education since they have a limited window to alter the trajectory of students trapped in Pennsylvania’s “low achieving schools.”  School choice initiatives have made significant, albeit incremental progress, recently.  

This past December, for instance, Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, signed off on legislation providing  a $150 million increase in the scholarship caps. While the increase makes it possible to provide about 35,000 additional scholarships, it is hardly enough to end the student waiting list or keep up with willing donors. Individuals and businesses that can donate have more than 200 scholarship organizations to choose from. In exchange for their donations, they receive a 75 percent (1-year commitment) or 90 percent (2-year commitment) credit against their state income tax. Bishop McCort has a list of individuals and businesses who have supported their students with scholarships. 

Tuition at Bishop McCort costs $13,000 per student, but the school charges $7,000, and the average scholarship is about $3,000. Smith estimates that about 80 percent of the students receive scholarships. 

Scholarship Parents Talk Up Benefits 

Without the EITC program, the affordability of a Catholic education, “would definitely be a struggle,” says Jen Preuss, a scholarship parent with three children attending Bishop McCort.

“I have twin boys who are seniors, and my daughter is a sophomore so obviously this is a huge commitment financially,” she says. “But we made the decision that we wanted more out of the education our children were receiving in the public schools and I’m happy we took this leap of faith. I would say to businesses now is the time to donate since the money will be well spent.”

Preuss also has a message for elected officials who are in a position to continue expanding the tax credit scholarship programs. 

The four-day week is just one small part of a larger plan the principal is considering.

“We need to make sure we are investing in our kids in every way possible, because they are our future,” she continued. “There is academic rigor, but also faith-based education that enables students to make good decisions and to be surrounded by other students who are thinking positively about the decisions they make each day. So, it’s not just the academic piece, it’s about the person as a whole and this is what they are getting at Bishop McCort.”

Without a Catholic education, Kaitlin Magro doubts very much that her son would be on his way to Brown University and that her other children would advance as much as they have academically. As one of several Bishop McCort alumni who are sending their own children to the school, Magro knows full well what distinguishes Catholic schools from conventional public schools. Her son, currently a junior, and wrestler, has been accepted into Brown based on his grades. She also has a daughter who is a sophomore now interested in pursuing advanced studies. Her other daughter is in the seventh grade and also attends a Catholic school. (READ MORE: Gov. Shapiro, Choose School Choice Over Union Power Grabs)

“Without the scholarships we would be looking at very high prices,” she said. “I had my kids in public schools, but I wanted them in Catholic schools because of the smaller classes and the hands-on instruction.

Teachers Celebrate Four-Day Week 

The teachers themselves have also found that their experiences have been professionally rewarding thanks in part to the environment, but also because of some recent innovations. Lorie Regan is one of those teachers. She’s an English instructor who has been with the school for 33 years. 

“The four-day week is one of the best moves we have made, and it’s been a fantastic morale booster for students and teachers,” Regan said. “I think in the beginning people were a bit hesitant. But what we took away day wise, we have made up minute wise. In fact, we have extra minutes with the students.”

Molly Largent, another English instructor, who is also certified in ESL agrees. Having Fridays open enables her to catch up on grading and get ahead on lesson plans. As a working mother with three children in elementary school, the four-day weeks gives her added flexibility.

“I can already see from my lesson plans that I’m already ahead of where I would have been this year thanks to the four-day week,” Largent said. “I also see students taking full advantage the extra day by taking SAT prep classes they would otherwise have to pay for, and tutoring services in any areas that they need.”

Largent also has no problem calling out political figures who claim to support students while voting down proposals for increased scholarships. 

“You can’t say you are in the business of helping kids or looking out for kids if you are keeping them in an environment where they are not able to thrive,” she said.

The four-day week is just one small part of a larger plan the principal is considering. Smith, who also serves as the head football coach, has been the school principal for five years, and has just signed another five-year contract. He’s eyeballing a nearby bank building as a potential internet café for online students where the tuition could be less than $2,000 a year. 

The ace in the hole for prospective students may exist in the form of the proposed “Lifeline Scholarships” offering Education Opportunity Accounts to any student assigned to a district school in the bottom 15 percent of performance based on state testing. The latest version of the lifeline proposal calls for $2,500 for a student in half-day kindergarten, $5,000 for a student in full-day kindergarten through eighth grade, $10,000 for students in grades nine through 12, and $15,000 for special-needs students regardless of their grade. For many students, this would be more than sufficient to cover the cost of Bishop McCort.

But ultimately, it falls on lawmakers, including some who have attended Catholic schools such as Bishop McCort, to provide parents with more autonomy over their own tax dollars as they search for alternatives to unsatisfactory public schools.

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with The Heritage Foundation.

The post Scholarships Succeed in Pennsylvania Catholic School appeared first on The American Spectator | USA News and Politics.

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