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CATHOLIC SCHOOLS/ Wichita: where tuition is no problem

Wichita, Kansas was cited as the best example of accessible Catholic education in the United States. Kristin Kennalley describes the system and what makes it work.

Highway leading to Wichita, Kansas Highway leading to Wichita, Kansas

What is special about Catholic education in Wichita, Kansas? What makes it “the best example” for making Catholic education accessible? (Fordham Foundation Report 2008) Is it a matter of the good fortune that the mid-sized city is far enough from the liberal coasts to maintain more traditional values for longer? Is it the lower cost of living? How did precisely this city become the home of a tuition-free elementary and high school system that is a hope for dioceses around the country in the struggle with dropping enrollment?

“As Superintendent of schools, I believe in three S leadership: to be first, a servant, because my work is not mine; next, a steward because it’s not all about me and my glory; finally, a shepherd because our starting point is that people are precious…”

For a 26-year-old born and educated for 13 years within the Diocese of Wichita like myself, these words of long-standing Superintendant of Wichita Catholic Schools Bob Voboril do not seem like much of a novelty. In fact, sitting in a college classroom full of teachers in training where Voboril was a guest lecturer, I found my mind begin to drift amidst the phrases which I seemed to have heard a thousand times before:

“Society values students who learn to be good citizens, but in our Catholic schools, we want a little more: students who recognize they were created out of love and for a purpose, and part of that purpose is to dig for truth. Many schools gauge progress simply by testing the ABCs and 123s, but we understand that unless you know what is good, other knowledge can get next to nowhere, or even lead to tragedy. We live more and more in a time where people expect the State to take care of providing ‘free and appropriate education’ for all children, but in our Catholic schools we would say that the parents are the first educators, which also means they need to continue to be educated right alongside their sons and daughters.”

As Voboril finished his speech, a surprise forced me to refocus my attention: my classmates began to ask questions, one after the other. I noticed the hint of curiosity in the men and women seated around me, ranging from 19-year-old undergraduates to 50-somethings who were veteran assistants and aids in public schools now seeking licensure as a teacher. In their faces I began to see that what I took for granted was to them something new. It was reason to look a little more carefully at the place in which I was spending my days as a first-year teacher.

The Diocese of Wichita is made up of 38 schools, which employ around 750 teachers and serve approximately 11,000 students. Compared to those of larger cities, these numbers certainly do not make Wichita significant. In terms of ratio of Catholic students enrolled to the Catholic population; however, Wichita is 6th among dioceses in the nation. It is also one of the dioceses where enrollment numbers are still rising, even in rural and economically distressed areas that typically see the opposite.