Bob Voboril: Catholic schools provide academic excellence amid diversity

03/01/2014 9:43 AM

05/27/2014 9:28 AM

How Maira Lopez Silva became a 2014 Kansas Teacher of the Year for the Kansas Association of Independent and Religious Schools is an American success story.

Why she attended Catholic schools contradicts many of the myths some Wichitans have about their community’s Catholic school system. Both stories are well worth sharing.

Maira Lopez is the oldest daughter of Mexican immigrants Jose and Celia Lopez. She grew up speaking and still speaks Spanish at home. Her parents never gave a passing thought to enrolling her in a Catholic school because in Mexico, only the wealthy can afford to attend a Catholic school.

Before Maira’s sixth-grade year, however, Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish established a scholarship fund so that parish children could attend a Catholic school without paying tuition. Mr. and Mrs. Lopez decided to enroll all four of their children in St. Patrick Catholic School, as did more than 50 other Hispanic families.

The scholarship fund paid for Maira’s education as she finished elementary school at St. Patrick’s and then graduated from Bishop Carroll Catholic High. She attended Wichita State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education with a major in Spanish and accepted a position teaching Spanish at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Wichita.

In her 10 years of teaching experience, she has distinguished herself as an innovative teacher with a passion for her students and her culture. Taking on increasing responsibility as a team leader, staff development resource and accreditation team chairwoman, she also earned a master’s degree in educational administration from Newman University and has served one year as assistant principal.

Now married with two young children, Maira Lopez Silva hopes to one day serve as administrator in a school with a predominantly Spanish-speaking population. She has accomplished a lot.

But she is not the only one. The profile of the nearly 11,000 students who attend Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wichita has been changing as well.

• There are 1,754 Hispanic students.
• There are 2,886 ethnic minority students.
• More than 800 students come from non-English-speaking homes.
• Students come from more than 60 public school districts.
• Nearly 2,400 students qualify for free- or reduced-priced lunches.
• More than 1,100 students receive latchkey services every day.
• More than 1,700 students have individual learning plans because of their special needs.
• More than 200 students have individual health plans to accommodate health conditions.

It would be safe to say that if the Catholic schools of the Diocese of Wichita were a public school system, they would be considered one of the 10 most diverse systems in Kansas. That they accomplish this without receiving government tax support or charging tuition is amazing.

Despite this challenge of serving a diversity of abilities and backgrounds, the Catholic school students of the Diocese of Wichita continue to excel. On the most recent 2013 Kansas assessments, five Catholic schools received the Governor’s Award for Academic Excellence by scoring in the top 5 percent of all schools statewide. By comparison, all the rest of the school districts in Sedgwick County earned seven Governor’s Awards, and the next highest number of awards for any district – Goddard and Andover – was two.

While the average score on the ACT college placement test for Kansas seniors was 21.8, the average for Catholic high school seniors was 23.9.

While the most recent U.S. Department of Education statistics report that only 31 percent of public high school seniors graduate from a four-year college in 10 years, the four Catholic high schools of the Diocese of Wichita report that in the last six years, 68 percent of their 2007 high school graduates have graduated from college.

Perhaps most importantly, on the most recent Kansas assessments for which data is available, the gap between Catholic school students qualifying for free- or reduced-priced lunches and those who do not was less than half of the gap for the state as a whole – 6.4 percent vs. 14.5 percent in reading and 2.9 percent vs. 14.4 percent in mathematics.

This same finding was true for Hispanic and ELL students as well.

Maira Lopez Silva’s story is a remarkable one, not only because she has overcome so many obstacles before the age of 30 to be respected as one of the finest teachers in the state of Kansas.

Maira Lopez Silva also symbolizes the growing diversity of Catholic schools as well as the unchanging commitment of Catholic education to superior education for every child, regardless of economic background.

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