LITCHFIELD PARK — Schools teach children to dream about their future and then equip them to pursue it. Students at St. John Vianney have a tangible example of what it means to “Reach for the Stars.” Their school, which opened 20 years ago last fall, was once a reachable dream of then-principal Fr. Joe Corpora.
Initial support was hesitant. St. John Vianney was among the diocese’s poorest parishes at the time and it would serve largely Hispanic students. But the Holy Cross priest argued that was precisely why the parish needed a school. Statistically, Mexican-American students were 12 times less likely to drop out of a Catholic school than a public high school, the priest read during a visit to Mexico City.
A diocesan school hadn’t been built in more than 30 years, but Fr. Corpoora managed to gather the necessary support to open a preschool in 1992, lead it for 10 years, grow it to a full-fledged elementary and leave it debt-free and with a firm endowment. School supporters strengthened that endowment, saluted its founder and celebrated student success during a “Reach for the Stars” benefit dinner and auction Feb. 1 at the Wigwam Resort.
It was the sixth such benefit since the school opened — the first welcoming Lou Holtz, an NFL coach who has appeared in recent Catholic Come Home commercials, as the keynote speaker. Funds from this year’s event will support the more than 70 percent of St. John Vianney students “blessed with some form of financial assistance,” the program stated.
The endowment has already awarded $1.2 million in scholarships. Some 1,200 students have passed through the school’s gates. Several members of the first graduating class returned for the school benefit and helped coordinate the live auction.
“It really molded me and helped me as a person,” said Vanessa Cruz, who was in the first preschool and eighth-grade graduating class.
Her experience was the deciding factor in choosing a Catholic high school, something that was only possible through her Christian Service Award. Cruz went on to become an event coordinator and remains a St. John Vianney parishioner.
Now, Latinos in Catholic schools are 42 percent more likely to graduate high school, according to the “Catholic School Advantage.”
“We have this product. It’s worked forever,” Fr. Corpora said of Catholic schools during a late-night keynote address. “We especially need them where kids don’t have the advantages that other kids have.”
St. John Vianney was the first Catholic school west of 51st Avenue. It solely served the far West Valley for 11 years until St. Thomas Aquinas opened in 2003.
Roberto Pedroza was the only kid in his family to leave public education and later graduate from St. John Vianney. It was Fr. Corpora who convinced his parents to enroll him in third grade.
“The man is a guy who is relentless,” said Mike Geddes, a Notre Dame graduate and member of St. John Vianney’s school development council. “He has tremendous dedication when he sets a goal for something.”
Now, the Holy Cross priest has taken his goal of making Catholic education accessible to the national level. He works with dioceses and schools in promoting Catholic education, especially among Latinos.
His formal title is director of University-School Partnerships in the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame University. Like he did in Goodyear, Fr. Corpora spends his days putting Catholic education on the front burner for bishops alongside pro-life and family issues.
“Our schools will not be sustainable in the next 50 years without public money and private philanthropy,” Fr. Corpora said.
Arizona is only one of 16 states supporting school choice.