St. Bernadette students Eimi Muñoz Ruiz, left, and Maria Zamago Ochoa participate in a church service on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 2018. They were second-graders at the time. St. Bernadette School has adopted more Hispanic traditions since becoming part of the Catholic School Consortium in 2013, while still observing older school traditions. COURTESY PHOTO

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Promise 2020 continues to strengthen east Omaha area parishes, schools

In 2011, many east Omaha parishes were seeing fewer people in their pews, declining enrollments in their schools and less resources to survive and thrive.

Prominent among the reasons was demographics: The Omaha area had changed over the years, with more people moving west and into suburbs and newer immigrants moving into the older neighborhoods.

The archdiocese studied the problems and came up with an answer: Promise 2020. The initiative realigned parishes and schools, strengthening them by uniting them.

A consultant was hired to collect data, examine trends, hold listening sessions and meet with parish leaders before presenting recommendations to the archdiocese.

Archbishop George J. Lucas made some tough, but forward-looking decisions that merged parishes and schools, said Msgr. James Gilg, a retired priest and former superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.

Catholic school students especially benefited from Promise 2020, Msgr. Gilg and others said.

Through the initiative, the Catholic School Consortium was created, with Msgr. Gilg as its first executive director.

Also through Promise 2020, the CUES (Christian Urban Education Services) nonprofit organization – which had helped provide a Catholic education for students at Sacred Heart School since the 1970s – placed two additional inner city schools under its wings.

‘GOOD STEWARDS’

Promise 2020 took steps to make parishes more vibrant and to stabilize schools, said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese.

“We are called to be good stewards of our resources,” he said, and Promise 2020 has helped make parishes more efficient by unifying fundraising, spiritual and ministerial endeavors.

“We tried to maximize facilities and resources to make sure they would flourish,” Deacon McNeil said.

Under Promise 2020, seven parishes were merged into others nearby: St. Rose of Lima, Assumption, St. Anthony, St. Adalbert, St. Patrick, St. Therese of the Child Jesus and Blessed Sacrament.

Three schools closed: St. Stanislaus, Holy Ghost and Assumption-Guadalupe. And five grade schools were united in a new Catholic School Consortium: Holy Cross, St. Thomas More, Our Lady of Lourdes, Ss. Peter and Paul, all in Omaha, and St. Bernadette in Bellevue. Families from the closed schools were encouraged to enroll at the consortium schools, which later grew to include the Dual Language Academy, located at the former St. Stanislaus School.

Students at consortium schools come from a variety of east Omaha parishes, all of which help fund the consortium. Ignite the Faith and other fundraisers also help to keep tuition affordable and maintain buildings.

While pooling resources, the consortium has tried to keep cultures at each individual school alive, Msgr. James Gilg said.

OLD AND NEW

St. Bernadette continues old traditions, but also has incorporated new ones that reflect the traditions of an increased number of Hispanic students, Principal Lynn Schultz said.

Now along with celebrating the feasts of St. Bernadette and St. Joseph, the school holds a special prayer service on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, decorates for Dia de Los Muertos (Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday), and in December observes Las Posadas, a reenactment of Joseph and Mary looking for lodging in Bethlehem.

“Old traditions and new traditions have been melded together,” Schultz said. “It’s a beautiful change.”

Stacey Fanciullo, music and art teacher at St. Bernadette, said teachers in consortium schools are able to share ideas, resources and expertise. Music teachers, for example, can turn to each other to find materials or answer questions.

“It’s a great resource,” Fanciullo said. “I wish I had it when I was starting.”

A BIGGER COMMUNITY

School families at St. Bernadette learn and socialize with families from other schools at common consortium events.

Machaela Casart said she enjoys being part of that extended school family. She and her husband, Paul, have three children at St. Bernadette: Ryker, 12; Evy, 11; and Clyde, 6.

Casart said she likes that her children are meeting students from other schools. Ryker, for example, played on a basketball team of combined students from St. Bernadette and St. Thomas More.

Together in the bleachers, parents from both schools cheered on their children and volunteered with each other at concession stands.

“I got to know St. Thomas More parents on a more personal level,” Casart said.

CUES

CUES, which since the 1970s had supported students at Sacred Heart School, lent its aid to two more inner city schools as a result of Promise 2020: Holy Name and All Saints.

The generosity of donors “helps even the playing field” for inner city children, providing technology and other resources, said Father David Korth, president of the CUES School System and pastor at Sacred Heart Parish. “It really helps students who come from a more challenged background.”

More than 80% of CUES students qualify for free or reduced cost lunches, more than half are from single-parent households and more than a third are learning English as a second language, according to the CUES website.

CUES hired a director of student and family support to help with some of those challenges and take some of those concerns away from teachers, Father Korth said.

In recent years, CUES has formed two separate boards, one that governs finances and another that handles educational matters. The latter has several members with advanced degrees in education, to help put the best teaching methods into practice, Father Korth said.

CUES has invested in its teachers, he said, offering 90% of the public schools’ salary scale, in an effort to attract the best educators and more minority teachers.

Changes for CUES over the years have paid off, he said, as student enrollment is climbing, from about 440 in the three schools in 2012 to about 600 this year in preschool through eighth grade.

Community support has increased, and combining resources for the three schools has saved money, Father Korth said.

The good works that began at Sacred Heart have expanded and multiplied, he said. “We’re doing phenomenal work at three inner city schools.”

DIFFICULTIES

Some Catholic school students transferred to public schools when their parish schools closed, said Father William Sanderson, pastor of Holy Ghost and St. Stanislaus parishes. But the opportunity for a Catholic education was preserved for many students.

Without Promise 2020’s changes, individual parish schools likely would have collapsed, he said.

The school and parish realignments were necessary, “more proactive than reactive.”

East Omaha parishes and schools continue to face challenges, especially those in high-poverty areas, Msgr. Gilg said. Educating students during the COVID pandemic is just one of those challenges, he said.

But the consortium and other education leaders will be “looking ahead, on the cutting edge of growth and quality.”

“I just hope they continue to have the success they’ve had and continue to grow,” he said.