Families navigate web of scholarships to support Catholic school tuition

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There are plenty of reasons and people that keep Catholics in fervent prayer. Financing a child’s elementary and high school education shouldn’t be among them.

That’s constantly on the mind and in the heart of people like the Aguilar family. So much so that the family prominently displays five numbers in their home: 24,070. It’s the total tuition cost the family needed to find for the current school year.

Crystal Aguilar, the matriarch, called it a previous number. It allows all three of her boys to be trailblazers. They’re the first on either side of the family to receive “an education sanctioned by God with Jesus at the center,” Aguilar said.

Matthew, the eldest, is now a sophomore at Bouragde Catholic High School. He was tested and ready to enter kindergarten at Ss. Simon and Jude 11 years ago, but didn’t. The tuition agreement was too much. He spent three years at a public school before the late Sr. Loreto Downing’s persistent urging to keep trying for financial aid and have faith that the tuition would be covered came to fruition.

Matthew’s younger brothers have been at Ss. Simon and Jude since kindergarten. They’re now in the seventh and fifth grades. The worry around tuition costs remains the same. That five-digit number reminds the Aguilars to offer prayers of petition and gratitude.

“We prayed over this number. We lit candles in our church over this number. We stressed over this number,” Crystal Aguilar said. “We were able to chip away at this $24,070 with in-parish discounts, STO scholarship and essay scholarships written by the boys, school financial aid and tax credit recommended funds.”

They made it work this year. Aguilar said there’s usually a few months of peace before beginning the process anew for the next school year.

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Support local Catholic education

Donations made to Catholic Education Arizona are eligible for a tax credit up to $2,134 for families and up to $1,067 for single filers.

Info: CatholicEducationArizona or (602) 218-6542

Mail donations to: 2025 N. Third St. #165, Phoenix, AZ 85004-1425

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The process doesn’t have to work like that though. Especially not when that education is in Arizona. It’s one of a few states that offer an equal trade — in the form of a tax credit — for anyone who supports a school tuition organization.

Individuals and corporations pooled $15.8 million through Catholic Education Arizona last year. It was enough to offer need-based scholarships to just over 6,100 children across the 37 elementary and high schools that serve the Diocese of Phoenix. That was 300 more students than last year. Yet more than $20 million in need went unfulfilled.

Working families like the Aguilars still struggle and pray. Grandmothers and other family members caring for their extended family remain in a bind.

Development directors at each school routinely point out other scholarship and financial resources. Some families must connect multiple dots each year just to keep their child eligible for enrollment. Many families are successful. Some are not.

Students with the most verified need — done through an independent financial review process — get priority for Catholic Equation Arizona’s tuition scholarships. Debra Castro, senior vice president of operations and finance, wants to raise money for every student.

“It’s time to redirect your 2015 state income tax dollars and change a student’s life forever,” Castro said. “You can give them the gift of a Catholic education at no net cost to you. You can choose how your tax dollars are spent and you get a dollar for dollar state income tax credit.”

Arizona offers a dollar-for-dollar tax credit up to $2,134 for families and up to $1,067 for individuals who contribute to Catholic Education Arizona.
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FAQs about the tuition tax credit

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Donors can mail in their contribution or complete it online. They can earmark money for a specific school or allow it to pad the general fund. Phoenix is among the nation’s top financially sound Catholic school systems, but it could be stronger, especially once a greater number of those in parishes without schools understand the ease and benefit of the tuition tax credit, Castro said.

“Having young people formed in the faith and a commitment to service makes for a better community and a better culture. The [Catholic] schools are doing it,” Castro said.

Ken Poocha has seen it with his two boys. Despite being a single parent, he never considered another school. Daily religion and high academic standards was all the info Poocha needed. His first- and fifth-graders have been at Sacred Heart School in Prescott since day one.

“I can tell they are just great kids because of it,” Poocha said.

He noted their respectful nature and general excitement about the faith. Their lives center around the church and Poocha knows each classmate’s family regards one another as their own.

Teachers and administrators take a genuine interest in a child’s emotional and psychological development too, Poocha said. The one thing that kind of bothers him is when random people at a restaurant or somewhere in public compliment his sons on their behavior.

“It kind of makes me feel embarrassed because that’s the way it should be, but upon further reflection, it’s what they see in school,” Poocha said.

Parents might have a set of expectations or ideals for their children, but he said that could get contradicted or undone at other schools. Poocha finds himself in other schools as an investigator and sees a marked difference in the way those children communicate with adults and their overall behavior.

Abel Ortiz has nothing but good things to say since transferring two of his kids to St. Agnes last year. Mia is now finishing her first semester at St. Mary’s High School and her youngest brother is in kindergarten.

He said they’re doing better now that they’re at Catholic schools and know more about religion. The family splits their weekends between St. Agnes and their home parish of St. Mark.

Not all Catholic school students are practicing Catholics though. Roughly 20 percent are not. Still, their families see value in the education. Even non-Catholics count themselves among Catholic Education Arizona donors.

If more Arizonans of any or no faith took advantage of the tuition tax credit, the numbers inside the Aguilar home might disappear altogether. Or if they stay, they would serve solely as numbers of gratitude.

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