Principals, school leaders and Catholic Education Arizona staff pose at CEA offices July 24. CEA leaders presented the first round of need-based tuition scholarship checks. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

Catholic Education Arizona welcomed principals back to the new school year with a sweet deal. Its leaders provided an informal ice cream social at the tuition organization’s central Phoenix office July 24.

As the “cherry on top,” principals also received their first round of need-based scholarship checks for their students. For the curious, principals could also add an authentic bright red cherry to their ice cream cone or sundae.

With sprinkles, waffle cones, syrup, whipped cream and fruit spread also available as toppings, it’s a toss-up whether the ice cream or the money was the sweeter deal. The giant $4 million symbolic check was realistically shared among 38 Catholic schools and earmarked for students whose families have verified financial need.

Renee Baeza, principal at Queen of Peace in Mesa, and Debra Preach, school liaison and chief development officer for Catholic Education Arizona, pose for a picture July 24 at CEA offices. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

Once combined with the remaining three quarters’ payouts — which will be larger because they will include second-round recipients — this will mark the largest amount of scholarships in Catholic Education Arizona’s 22-year-history. Of the 7,000 applicants, some 6,000 students should expect to receive financial assistance through Catholic Education Arizona, said Nancy Padberg, president and CEO. Some 45 percent of students in Catholic schools throughout the Diocese of Phoenix — plus St. Michael Indian School in St. Michael, Arizona, under the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico — receive tuition support through Catholic Education Arizona.

At schools like Queen of Peace in Mesa, more than 90 percent of its 260 students receive a need-based scholarship from Catholic Education Arizona and other student tuition organizations. “It gives them the opportunity to give their kids a Catholic education and the same values that they’re getting at home,” said office manager Tamara Korte.

Queen of Peace students also get a unique chance to balance their spiritual and academic formation with hands-on “STEAM-centered” classes that touch on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The school is in its third year offering a woodshop program for fourth through eighth grades. Younger students get to stain wood and have been known to put wood pieces together to support each grade’s garden bed.

Catholic Education Arizona President and CEO Nancy Padberg (right) shares a laugh with Claudia Acevedo, finance manager at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Glendale. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

Lori Cook, principal at St. Gregory, also knows of the need for tuition help at diocesan schools. She spent 10 years at St. Jerome and two at St. John Bosco. Some 80 percent of St. Gregory students receive assistance, with about 50 percent coming from Catholic Education Arizona.

“Several of these families, if it wasn’t for this program, they wouldn’t be able to have the opportunity for a Catholic education they want for their families,” Cook said. She described it as a joy to be able to tell them scholarship money is available. “They are overwhelmed. They are so moved by what’s possible, they encourage others to give.”

At some schools in the diocese, 100 percent of its student population independently qualifies for financial assistance. Most funding comes in through tax credit donations, both individual and corporate.

Jennifer Macaluso said CEA’s supportive funding made paying tuition possible for her Xavier College Preparatory student, who is an alumna of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral School. She has seen her daughter thrive within its nurturing environment that has a strong sense of family.

Maureen DeGrose, principal at St. Jerome Catholic School, and Amanda Kolden, administrative assistant, prepare a root beer float during a light social at Catholic Education Arizona offices July 24. CEA leaders also presented the first round of need-based tuition scholarship checks. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

“It’s more than a curriculum. It’s about service, kindness, compassion and loyalty, a value system that becomes a way of life,” Macaluso said.

Her daughter, Abby, appreciates the greater opportunity to learn about the faith and grow in her spirituality throughout the school day.

“My teachers and friends have both been encouraging factors that have motivated me to build a stronger relationship with God. CEA has provided my family with the funds so that I can attend a school that cares about every one of its students,” Abby said.

“Our purpose is changing lives one scholarship at a time,” Padberg said. Look for those changes to soon also better support students with disabilities — including those in foster care and with a parent in the military — as scholarship money for them opens up. Also look for a new website just around the corner.