Chicago Catholic School Gets Its Christmas Miracle | WBEZ
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Chicago Catholic School Gets Its Christmas Miracle

A Christmas wish for a small Catholic school on Chicago's South Side is coming true. Donations showered on St. Walter Elementary over the last two weeks are expected to keep the school open.

The Archdiocese of Chicago had threatened to close the school if it failed to raise $364,000 by Jan. 7.  But this week, school officials said they raised even more —  $425,000.

“This is huge … we are going to be able to continue to educate students and welcome many more to our school,” said St. Walter School Principal Sharon O’Toole. “ It’s a wonderful feeling.”

The St. Walter School community learned their fundraising deadline in early November. Between then and a few days before Christmas, the 70-year-old school managed to raise $184,000.

So, as students left for the holidays, O’Toole had just one thing on her mind: finding more funders.

And find them she did. In just two weeks — that included Christmas and New Year’s —  support came pouring in from alumni and families, including a handful of business owners who made hefty donations between $20,000 and $50,000.

The Big Shoulders Fund, a Chicago based nonprofit that raises money to send low-income students to Catholic schools, contributed one-third of the $364,000 fundraising goal. In addition, the organization is pledging to help the school financially over the next two school years.  

The archdiocese gave St. Walter until Feb. 11 to secure all the pledged money. By then, school officials need at least $364,000 in the bank.

O’Toole isn’t worried. She’s been bowled over by the support from alumni and families — whether or not their efforts yielded big or small amounts.

Students came up with all kinds of fundraising ideas. They raised nearly $400 selling bracelets, while others considered selling slime. Some parents also raised $3,000 selling popcorn.

O’Toole had been warned about the lack of funds and declining school enrollment last school year. She had hoped to enroll a number of students through the state’s new tax credit scholarship for private schools. But the final number was lower than she hoped. In her working-class community, O’Toole said, paying about $6,000 for elementary school tuition is tough.

St. Walter’s student population has been declining over the last six years, with enrollment falling by nearly half. The school can fit more than 200 students but now enrolls 118 students. About 40 percent are considered low-income.

This enrollment decline reflects a trend at many Archdiocese of Chicago schools. In the past 20 years, the church has lost 42 percent of its student population, and the number of Catholic schools has dropped by nearly 31 percent.

Principal O’Toole is breathing a sigh of relief this week. But she knows the fight to keep the school open won’t end here.

“The next step, and the hard work begins now, because we really need to increase our enrollment to helping us sustain our school,” O’Toole said. “We’ve really got to keep raising money to build up our savings account.”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.

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