It was hard, after all that Bishop Ward High School has been through, to figure what was more gratifying.
Was it how easily students in Lori Dowd’s finance class — many of them from families without college experience — gathered around a visitor to talk of their college plans and job-seeking skills?
(That was five of them smacking a group high-five for the summer jobs they secured.)
Was it the zeal her class showed in tracking the ups and downs of its real-world stock market investment — which happened for the moment to be in a bit of a slump?
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(“Hey,” snapped the student bearing the most responsibility for the investment choice, amid laughter, “it’s not over yet!”)
Or was it when Dowd, aside from the class, marveled that the Catholic school in Kansas City, Kan., was even still here?
So many families were moving out of Wyandotte County in the 1990s, “we didn’t know if we would survive,” said Dowd, who has taught at Bishop Ward, 708 N. 18th St., for 30 years.
More often across the country, Catholic high schools in urban cores eventually moved or closed as their parishes joined the suburban migration.
By holding its ground, Bishop Ward strikes an unusual pose on the parochial school landscape.
Nearly seven out of every 10 of its students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, said the school’s president, the Rev. Tom Schrader.
Its enrollment is now more than 60 percent students of color.
Ninety-seven percent of its families receive some amount of scholarship help, while paying an average of $4,000 per child of the school’s $8,260 tuition, he said.
This is why the National Academy Foundation — which has helped urban public schools give low-income students competitive career opportunities — made Bishop Ward its first, and still only, Catholic school partner.
More recently, when the Kauffman Foundation announced grants to mostly public school programs that help underprivileged high school students gain college access, the foundation included two parochial schools:
Cristo Rey Kansas City and Bishop Ward.
Catholic schools serving predominantly low-income students are pretty rare, said Aaron North, vice president of education at the Kauffman Foundation.
North talked of how Bishop Ward stands alongside other schools focused on successful outcomes for students who might otherwise not have the advantages they need.
“I’ve learned that I have a lot of qualities the business world would like to have,” 16-year-old Jazmine Diaz said, talking of Bishop Ward’s Academy of Finance — business and mentoring programming through the National Academy Foundation.
The junior, who would be the first in her family to go to college, plans to study animal biology at Kansas State University.
These skills not only prep them for college but send them confidently into those interviews for summer jobs, said 17-year-old Teila Broxton, who wants to study business management and finance at Florida State University.
“Some of us come from rough backgrounds,” she said. “But I went to a grocery store, and (the manager) said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a resumé?’ And he could see I wasn’t scared to go out on a stage and talk.
“I was hired on the spot.”
‘The right mix’
The number of Catholic schools nationwide has fallen 30 percent since 1979, from about 9,640 to fewer than 6,840, according to the National Catholic Register — with most of the losses in urban centers and older suburbs.
To keep from following suit, Bishop Ward needed help.
“It was the will of the families that built this place and their legacy kids that held us together as a family,” Dowd said.
And the school had to get creative in broadening its ties with the community.
That meant attracting more business support, not just financially, but as classroom partners to fortify the efforts of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and the Catholic Education Foundation to keep Bishop Ward alive.
Several years ago, backers of an Academy of Finance program at Westport High School took notice of Bishop Ward.
All of the National Academy Foundation’s work had been in public schools, but expanding the program into this particular Catholic school made a lot of sense, said Jack Misiewicz, who was then the regional director of the FDIC.
Many professionals in the local banking and finance industry were volunteering in support of the Academy of Finance mission of involving more students of color in the financial community, Misiewicz said.
“This kind of experience opens new doors,” he said. “And Bishop Ward seemed to be the right mix.”
Business collaboration also was essential for Cristo Rey, a Catholic school founded by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth 10 years ago to serve a high-minority, low-income population.
That school adopted the national Cristo Rey model, in which business partners open their doors for students to work in their offices one day a week to earn wages — as well as work experience — that cover much of the tuition costs.
The Academy of Finance built a needed connection with businesses for Bishop Ward. The impact has been powerful, Dowd said.
“It is bridging the gap between school and business,” she said, “and it has brought in an alumni base, which is huge.”
KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory firm, has brought in dozens of mentors for Bishop Ward students in the academy.
“We’re emphasizing that you are the one responsible for your success,” said volunteer Cassie Meschke, a senior manager at KPMG. “They’re learning that it’s hard work.”
And they’re gaining confidence in being able to make quick connections in interviews and meetings, and marketing themselves.
“We get to think of something we can do that no one else has done,” 17-year-old junior Jessica Luna said.
The entrepreneurship class earlier in this school year had her and her team researching and brainstorming to gain an edge in a sales competition in the school’s cafeteria.
“You learn about opening a business,” Luna said. “You learn how to be creative.”
It is gratifying that the Catholic school has survived to offer such special programming, said Shelley Coulter, the director of Bishop Ward’s Academy of Finance,.
“We want to make sure that all students, even in the urban core, have the same opportunities a suburban school would have,” Coulter said.
Stephen Allen, a retired Merriam specialist in personal finance and accounting who put up his own money for Dowd’s finance class to take a plunge in the stock market, admitted selfish reasons for his generosity.
He visits the class once a week to talk finance with them because the day is coming when these students will be “the main cogs” of the economy, he said.
“We need young people to be trained in economic theory and finance,” he said, “in order for my retirement to go well.”
To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.