Wichita is blessed.
Not only can Wichita boast of the state’s largest urban school district and excellent suburban schools, but it also enjoys a diverse group of private and parochial schools. I believe, however, that the best kept secret in Wichita may be the Diocese of Wichita’s extraordinary Catholic schools.
As the second-largest school system in Sedgwick County and the ninth-largest in Kansas, the 39 schools of the Diocese of Wichita serve nearly 11,000 students in urban and rural areas. Although they must meet the same accreditation and licensure requirements that public schools meet, our Catholic schools receive no state funding, and thus save taxpayers nearly $100 million a year.
What distinguishes Catholic schools, though, is our mission. Catholic schools seek to form disciples of Jesus Christ. This formation is fostered daily by teachers, prayer, worship, infusion of religious values into curriculum and activities, and apostolic service.
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No less an authority than the Fordham Institute has declared that the Catholic schools of Wichita might be the best Catholic school system in the United States, and it devoted the entire first chapter of a recent publication to explain its conclusion.
As academic institutions, the Diocese of Wichita’s Catholic schools have enjoyed unparalleled success in recent years. On state achievement assessments, Catholic schools regularly rank near the top, last year earning more than 400 certificates of excellence.
Four of the 42 elementary schools that received the Governor’s Award for Educational Excellence (the top 5 percent of all schools) are Catholic schools of the Diocese of Wichita. The average ACT score in the diocese (24.1) soars above the state average (21.7). More than 75 percent of Catholic high school graduates complete college within six years, more than double the national average.
Catholic schools accomplish these feats with remarkably diverse families. More than 2,700 students are from ethnic minority families, and a third of those come from homes where English is a second language. In 22 of those schools, more than 30 percent of the students qualify as low income. There are more than 1,700 students with individual learning plans. Yet more than 90 percent of the students meet or surpass state standards.
In the Diocese of Wichita we believe that it is the responsibility of the entire Catholic community to provide for the education of our children, In 2011-12, Catholic parishes – from McPherson to Arkansas City and Fort Scott to Pittsburg – provided more than $35 million to fund Catholic education, or nearly 80 percent of all educational expenditures. That made it possible for active Catholic families to pay no grade school or high school tuition, the only such school system in the nation.
In recent years, the Most Reverend Michael O. Jackels, Bishop of the Diocese of Wichita, has taken this commitment one step further. He has asked the faithful of the diocese to extend their stewardship of Catholic education beyond parish boundaries to include those urban and rural parishes most impacted by the massive demographic changes of the past two decades.
The St. Katharine Drexel Catholic School Fund distributed $550,000 last year. Our hope is to quadruple that amount in the next five years.
Because of the network of support that makes their education possible, students are reminded often that “to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” And they respond, not just in grades, or victories or scholarships, but in becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.
A wise person once wrote that “before you can make a person better, you must first make them good.” This insistence on putting right and wrong, conscience and responsibility, before everything else is what makes the schools in the Diocese of Wichita ones we all can believe in.