After loss of tax credit money, anonymous donors help Catholic school in Cicero stay open

A Catholic grade school in Cicero will remain open with operational support from Big Shoulders Fund, a Chicago-based nonprofit, and nearly half a million dollars donated by anonymous supporters, reversing a previous decision for the Archdiocese of Chicago to close the school after the loss of thousands of dollars in tax credit scholarships.

School leaders announced Wednesday that St. Frances of Rome, a pre-K to eighth grade private school, will join the Big Shoulders Fund Plus network. As part of the network of 38 Chicago-area Catholic schools, Big Shoulders will provide support with curriculum, teacher retention and management. The integration is a result of the donors’ pledge, with Big Shoulders committing to assist in raising more money for the school’s future.

In late January, the archdiocese announced that St. Frances of Rome in Cicero would close its doors in June. The sunset of the state’s Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program created a financial cliff for the school, which has a majority Hispanic student population from working-class families.

For weeks, parents, parishioners and community members rallied to garner attention and pressure leaders to save the school outside the parish’s Sunday Mass and in front of Holy Name Cathedral in River North, where the Archbishop of Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich works.

But at a rally Wednesday in the school’s auditorium, the student body gathered in celebration of the investment to keep the school afloat.

“St. Frances of Rome school is staying open,” Superintendent for Catholic Schools Greg Richmond exclaimed to the packed room of more than 100 people, who erupted in loud cheers and applause. “Today we come together over a joy to celebrate that St. Frances of Rome will be here for many more years to come.”

A few teachers wiped tears from their faces while a group of seventh-grade girls shrieked with excitement that they would not have to transfer for their last year of middle school.

As news of the impending school closure spread, several anonymous donors approached the Big Shoulders Fund with donations, contributing roughly $500,000 to keep St. Frances of Rome in operation, said President and CEO Josh Hale.

Hale said he knew a collaboration between Big Shoulders and St. Frances could allow the school to flourish.

“We are certainly not coming in with all the answers. We’re going to come with a lot more questions,” Hale said. “What are the needs? What resources do we have to pull together? What can we do to create time and space to plan for the next century?”

St. Frances parent and organizer Betty Paz thanked the parents who consistently spoke out to save the school in the past month, saying she hoped Wednesday was the last time she spoke to reporters about the future of the school.

“We knew that we were not going to allow someone’s decision to close SFR. We needed to make sure that we came together and this decision was not going to break apart the family and the community that we have built in St. Frances of Rome School,” Paz said.

Principal Phil Jackson said the school serves as a prep school for the Hispanic community in Cicero and nearby neighborhoods, with several students attending competitive Catholic high schools such as Fenwick in Oak Park and St. Ignatius College Prep on the city’s West Side.

“We can continue doing things so kids can continue having these experiences of not only receiving a fantastic prep school education, but we can also help them get closer to God,” said Jackson, who has led the school for 17 months.

The investment in the school is a bright spot in the midst of an uncertain future for Illinois religious schools that were already struggling financially before the loss of tax credit funds. Out of 170 students at St. Frances of Rome, 104 students attend with support from tax credit scholarships this year, the archdiocese said.

St. Odilo School in Berwyn is still set to close at the end of this academic year, forcing 138 students to attend other schools in the fall.

In an email to the St. Odilo community, the Rev. Bart Juncer said Big Shoulders also considered the Berwyn school, but its smaller enrollment and endowment, along with a lack of financial assistance from a sharing parish, made St. Frances of Rome a stronger choice for the funds.

“This is difficult news for us, but good news for St. Frances of Rome and the families who will benefit from the parish’s school,” Juncer wrote.

The archdiocese has encouraged families who relied on Invest in Kids to seek scholarships directly from the Catholic schools and for donors to shift their support to archdiocesan scholarships. Big Shoulders will assist in funding tuition for St. Odilo students to attend other Catholic schools.

Hale said that without the program, scholarship donations will most likely take a hit by the loss of donors attracted by tax credits, but philanthropy for Catholic education will continue to exist. Still, the organization is pushing for Illinois to reinstate Invest in Kids.

“The Invest in Kids scholarship program coming back is really the only way that we can ensure that families continue to have access to these schools and legislators have to act or they’re going to have to answer to their communities,” Hale said.

Signed into law in 2017, Invest in Kids provided what are effectively public subsidies in which donors could receive a 75% tax credit, capped at $1 million, on donations funding private school scholarships. A handful of nonprofits — including Big Shoulders — processed applications and distributed the aid, awarded in lump sums so students can finish out the school year.

Big Shoulders distributed more than $19 million in tax credit scholarships to primarily Catholic school students during the 2022-23 school year.

Invest in Kids ignited a contentious debate over the merits of a state-sponsored school choice program. Advocates viewed it as a chance to even the playing field for low-income, minority students, while opponents saw it as a drain on public school funds that did not have enough transparency and state oversight.

Last week, an independent report submitted to the Illinois State Board of Education showed students receiving tax credit scholarships lagged in reading and math proficiency on state standardized tests compared with public school students.

Catholic school leaders and backers of school choice decried the report, stating scores of Invest in Kids recipients should be compared with the scores of public school students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Invest in Kids eligibility was limited to students whose families earned up to 300% of the poverty level in the year before they applied.

After the program was left out of the state budget last summer, school choice advocates launched a campaign to encourage lawmakers to save the program. Despite an eleventh-hour effort to save the program during the final week of the General Assembly’s last session of the year, lawmakers adjourned without taking up a proposal to extend it beyond Dec. 31.

Both sides believe it to be the first discontinued voucher program in the country.