On Chicago’s south side, a scholarship program is offering parents a unique opportunity at school choice.
Founded in 1989 by the late Sr. Ellen Carroll, O.P., a Sinsinawa Dominican nun, the scholarship is offered to students who attend Visitation Catholic School in their elementary years. Students apply in their 8th-grade year and, if selected, can use the scholarship at the Chicago-area Catholic high school of their choice.
The idea sprang from a clear need for options outside the Chicago Public School system.
“Sister Ellen started the scholarship program because she saw students graduate from Visitation, go to the local public high school, and graduate totally unprepared for college or fail to do so altogether,” explained Stephanie Hicks, development director of the Visitation Scholarship.
“She wanted to give kids who graduated from Visitation the opportunity to continue their education in the same type of community in which they started,” Hicks said.
Currently, 32 students are using the scholarship at 11 schools. Between five and 10 students are awarded scholarships each year.
To qualify, students must have a minimum 2.0 grade point average and strong recommendations from teachers. They also must have attended Visitation for at least two years and participated in extracurricular activities. The focus of the scholarship is to offer choice and opportunity to students who may not be typical candidates for such an opportunity.
“We are not looking for the most academically talented student,” said Hicks. “What we’re really looking for in students is a commitment to community service and being a well-rounded student. We want them to strive for their personal best academically, but it’s not an honors program.
“We look for the students we think really deserve a chance to take part in a Catholic, faith-based educational environment, even though most of our students are not Catholic, nor is that a requirement for the scholarship,” Hicks explained.
The scholarships are paid for by individual sponsors who make a commitment to support recipients throughout their entire high school careers. Sponsors agree to pay at least half their student’s tuition each year, communicate with the child at least once a month, and take part in two annual events.
Kevin Doherty, a father of six and president of a local insulation company, has been a sponsor for about 10 years and will see his fourth student enter high school this year.
“For the student who works hard and does well, there really isn’t that much opportunity,” Doherty said. “From my very first involvement, I’ve thought of the scholarship as school choice without the government. We’re not waiting for the government to give these kids their choice of where to go; we’re providing it for them.
“The really neat part about the scholarship is the accountability aspect of it. That is what drew my wife and me to participate,” Doherty continued. “This program is clearly not a handout. It is strictly an earned scholarship. These kids get their tuition check every month so they are accountable on a monthly basis.”
To keep the scholarship, students must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, participate in 30 hours of service learning each school year, regularly communicate with their sponsor, participate in extracurricular activities at their high school, and attend all scholarship-related meetings.
Scholarship recipients are not the only ones who have to stay committed to the program in order to keep their award. The student’s parents are also required to take part in monthly meetings.
“In order for the scholarships to be given, the parents have to attend a meeting once a month for every month the child is in school,” explained Hicks. “We cover topics like mental health and teens, financial planning, nutrition and teens, and knowing the law for new drivers. We cover a new topic each month, and that is part of the way the family helps earn their child’s scholarship.”
Freida Saffold has been a scholarship parent since 1999. All three of her children have received scholarships, with her two oldest having already graduated high school and moved on to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Her youngest child is currently using a Visitation scholarship for his sophomore year at St. Rita of Cascia High School.
She appreciates the mandatory parental participation aspect of the program.
“I know the more involved you are with your child, the more positive outcome you’ll have,” said Saffold. “Even though they may not tell you directly that they want you there, kids really yearn for their parents’ participation in their academic life. I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent, but I do consider myself one who stays close to her children.”
With a 100 percent graduation rate for recipients in the class of 2007, Carroll’s vision for better opportunities and outcomes for Visitation Catholic School alums has come to fruition. Saffold says the scholarship has done a great job in helping her children navigate high school and prepare for college.
The additional help from the community was especially helpful to Saffold after her husband’s death a few years ago, she said.
“The program is great because it allows more people to be involved in seeing the child through high school, and I remember how difficult that time can be,” Saffold recalled. “I thought having more people keep an eye on my kids was a good idea. It was especially helpful when my husband passed away. I do believe in the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ concept, and this program is a prime example of that.”
Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.