Success Stories

Big Shoulders’ Formula for Saving Catholic Schools: Patrons

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

On the surface, Gina Spraggins and Lindy Keiser have little in common and the two have never even met. Spraggins, who lives on the West Side, is a freshman at St. Ignatius College Preparatory High School.  Keiser, who now lives on Chicago’s North Side is from ___________ and works closely with her husband who co-founded a greeting card company and who now builds renowned golf courses around the world.

Yet Gina and Keiser have been working on a parallel path for the past several years. While neither is Catholic, they are deeply committed to Chicago’s inner city Catholic schools, and they both believe those schools can be a lifeline for children in poverty.

Keiser and her husband, Mike, brought their resources, business connections and expertise to St. Angela Catholic School as the school’s official sponsor, or “Patron.”  The Keisers also serve as Patrons at two other schools and are involved in a variety of scholarship programs. They are involved in education reform activities across public, charter and private schools. Their commitment to positive educational outcomes have drawn them to be involved in a myriad of educational opportunity and reform organizations including Daniel Murphy Scholarship Program, the Academy for Urban School Leadership,  Teach for America and more.

Meanwhile, Spraggins, a recent graduate of St. Angela, did her part by taking full advantage of the opportunities the Keisers generated for her school, a mainstay in the Austin community since 1921. In doing so, Spraggins has transformed her life and prospects for success.

The growing Patrons Program is among the most successful initiatives of Chicago’s Big Shoulders Fund (BSF). Despite a depressed economy, this program has produced very encouraging results over the past several years for Chicago Catholic schools on the verge of extinction. While financially strapped Catholic schools across the country have closed their doors at a disturbing pace, Chicago has not shut any Big Shoulders schools for the past three years.

Founded in 1986, the Big Shoulders Fund was inspired by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who gathered a group of Chicago’s prominent business, professional and financial leaders to provide private contributions exclusively to inner-city Big Shoulders schools.

In 2000, BSF launched the Patrons Program to more closely engage its supporters, and the program has recently gained momentum with a growing group of Patrons. Since the program’s founding, more than $18.5 million has been committed to schools through the Patrons Program. About $9.5 million of that has already been invested in the 61 Big Shoulders’ schools that have a Patron assigned to them. Ultimately, Big Shoulders leaders hope to have a Patron assigned to all 76 elementary schools that they serve.

In many instances, Patrons aren’t just writing checks. They’re doing everything from helping establish school boards, working with principals to develop a strategic plan, hiring marketing directors, installing new technology and training teachers. If they’re not actively involved in the day-to-day operations, many help set up Patron boards with members who are. In fact, Lindy Keiser is in the schools every week to lend her support, advice, and encouragement.  She is actively involved in the lives of the children at the schools that she and Mike support.

A number of Patrons are former Catholic school students who feel an emotional commitment to the system’s continued success. Yet many others are attracted by the chance to make a difference in a community otherwise struggling with extreme poverty.

At St. Angela’s, the Keisers’ support has clearly saved the school from closing, says Sister Mary Finnegan, the principal. St. Angela originated as a parish school, but the parish church closed in 2005. At that time, many feared the school would close as well.

Instead, St. Angela’s enrollment has grown from 202 students three years ago to roughly 250 students today.

Gina Spraggins is among the hundreds of students who’ve benefited from the Keisers’ commitment. Her mother, Cindy Spraggins, first brought Gina to St. Angela because she felt the local public school in Austin was failing her. Teachers told Cindy her daughter had learning problems and would always struggle academically.

Cindy, a cook at Garrett’s Gourmet Popcorn, never went to college and always regretted it. She wanted more for her daughter, a chance to build a new path to success. She was immediately impressed with the atmosphere at St. Angela, where the strict discipline, high academic standards and dedication of the teachers stood out from the first visit. While the tuition was still a stretch with her modest salary, tuition assistance helped the family scrape by.

The sacrifice paid off. Gina is now a freshman at St. Ignatius College Preparatory High School, one of the city’s most selective and well-regarded high schools. “I cried when I got the (acceptance) letter,” Gina says. “It was just so overwhelming. I know I couldn’t have gotten so far without St. Angela, my mom and God.” Gina firmly believes her experience at St. Angela’s was life-changing.

“With St. Angela, where do I even begin?” Gina says. “I just never viewed school as school. I’ve always viewed it as family.”

The St. Angela “family” includes not only its dedicated teaching staff and volunteers, but a deeply committed behind-the-scenes group of supporters. The Big Shoulders’ Fund helped set up a Patron board, which included many prominent leaders. Among them is Patrick Mahoney, a retired lawyer and longtime supporter of Big Shoulders who gives much of his time and resources to the school.

Mahoney was an early fan of St. Angela because of the high academic standards and dedication he saw from Sister Finnegan and the teachers. “It’s a safe haven, a harbor for kids who go home to not so nice neighborhoods,” Mahoney said. “… And most important, the students receive a great education.”

The Patron board established a tuition assistance program for the school, where 95 percent of students are low income. The school also utilized the Keiser funding to hire Molly Broeren as a marketing and development director.  In addition to building enrollment, Broeren has reached out to former alumni and helped develop new and stronger connections with parents and the community. The school now has a partnership with Dominican University, which sends student teachers and volunteer tutors for after school programs.

The backing has allowed Sister Finnegan to worry much less about the school’s survival and more about its future. “We’d be in dire need without our Patrons,” she said. “… I just think there’s great hope here now.”

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