Program goes extra mile for Catholic education

Extra Mile Education Foundation reaches out to mostly black families in low-income areas

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Bill Wade, Post-Gazette photos
Irma Woodson, with grandson Hasan, 8, in the foreground, is a grandmother raising her four grandchildren and a niece. The youngest four go to St. Agnes School in Oakland, while Lamar, 16, attends North Catholic High School. Funding from the Extra Mile Education Foundation helps the family.
By Tim Grant
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bookworms are cool at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School.

A bright kid gains popularity among his peers for getting high grades. No one disrupts a class. And every child at the all-black private school in the heart of the Hill District gets daily homework assignments that parents must sign.

"Our students take their books home every day and they don't lose them either," said Sister Margery Kundar, who has been the principal at St. Benedict for 28 years. "We have a system."

St. Benedict is one of four K-8 Catholic schools serving mostly black families in low-income communities supported by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh through a program called the Extra Mile Education Foundation.

For the past 16 years, Holy Rosary in Homewood, St. Agnes in Oakland and St. Benedict have been Extra Mile schools. St. James in Wilkinsburg became an Extra Mile school in 2000.

In addition, some pupils at Good Shepherd in Braddock and Cardinal Wright Regional on the North Side receive scholarship aid from the program.

This week, Catholic schools nationwide are celebrating Catholic Schools Week, with a theme calling them "the good news in education."

For Candace Ragin, St. Benedict and the Extra Mile program were good news. She is one of 1,049 pupils who have graduated from eighth grade through the Extra Mile program.

"It's a very structured environment that helped me focus on what I was there for, which was to learn," said Ms. Ragin, 25, who graduated from St. Benedict in 1995. She went on to North Catholic High School and earned a law degree from Duquesne University in June.

"Starting off in such a positive, nurturing environment got me off on the right path to where I am now and where I'll be going in the future," she said.

The schools have been around for many years; St. Benedict, for example, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month.

But all of the Extra Mile schools would have been shut down years ago if people in those communities had not cried out for them and local business leaders had not responded with a fund-raising campaign that has so far raised nearly $44 million to subsidize tuition costs.

The nonprofit Extra Mile Education Foundation is funded by charitable donation from Pittsburgh corporations like Westinghouse Electric and philanthropies such as The Heinz Endowments.

"We felt very strongly that we should do everything in our power to keep the schools open because they provided such a wonderful opportunity for these children to learn and have hope for the future," said Tom O'Brien, chairman of the Extra Mile board of directors and retired chairman of PNC Financial.

One Extra Mile graduate, William Thomas, 28, is a certified public accountant for Ernst & Young. The Holy Rosary alumnus is paying tuition for two godchildren to attend St. Benedict.

"It kept me out of trouble and the temptations that existed outside of school and the challenges I faced growing up in an inner-city environment," said Mr. Thomas, who grew up in Wilkinsburg.

Most of the 830 pupils who attend the Extra Mile schools are non-Catholic and low-income. An average of 70 percent of the pupils -- and as many as 87 percent in some schools -- have family incomes low enough to qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program.

Parents who rely on the Extra Mile subsidies to help pay school costs are on public assistance, are low-wage earners or are not working because they're in school. Many are single parents. Some are grandparents or great-grandparents raising children who were neglected by their own parents.

These families put education first despite obstacles they face in their lives.

"[The children] learn academics, but they also learn a real sense of themselves, that they can fly," said Ambrose Murray, executive director of the Extra Mile Foundation.

With her grandchildren's mother hooked on drugs and alcohol, Irma Woodson knew they would have grown up in foster homes if she hadn't met the challenge of raising them herself.

She rescued two of them from a crack house in Northview Heights, where they had been abandoned. She carried the other two home from the hospital right after each was born.

As a result of saving her grandchildren, she lost her own marriage and her nursing career.

"Education was always a priority in my household," said Ms. Woodson, 57, of Oakland, who now runs a home day care. "Catholic school classes are small and stay together. They bond and make lifetime friends. They all practically grow up together, and they're good influences."

It costs Ms. Woodson about $3,000 a year to send three of her grandchildren -- Christina, 12; Natasha, 10; and Hasan, 8, -- to St. Agnes.

LaMar Woodson, 16, who also graduated from St. Agnes, is a junior at North Catholic High School, where tuition is about $7,500 a year. Ms. Woodson's portion of the bill comes to about $1,500, thanks to a subsidy from the Crossroads program, which helps youngsters continue in Catholic schools when they leave Extra Mile schools.

"I get no government assistance for raising the kids," said Ms. Woodson, a non-Catholic. "Everything we get comes from Extra Mile, Crossroads and my family day care."

Lynn Harris, 36, a paralegal, is separated from her husband and struggling to make ends meet. She sends her children to St. James so they'll learn Christian values along with the three R's.

Ms. Harris graduated from St. James long before Extra Mile came along and has since put all of her six children through the school. Two have graduated. Four of them -- Asia, 13; London, 11; Milan, 8; and Terevon, 5, -- still attend St. James.

"Before Extra Mile started at St. James, I was really struggling to keep them there because of the tuition," Ms. Harris said. "I was always on the verge of taking them out of school."

Parents who receive funding are required to volunteer at the schools.

Ms. Harris does way more than the four lunch duties that parents are asked to work each year. She is vice president of the Parent Teacher Guild, runs a Santa shop in December and keeps the score books for the school basketball games.

"I'm pretty much involved in anything that the school is doing," she said. "Being there lets me know my kids are getting what I expect them to."

The Extra Mile Education Foundation was started in 1990 after then-Bishop Donald Wuerl arranged a series of meetings with local business leaders such as Mr. O'Brien and John Marous, chief executive officer of Westinghouse, to establish a foundation to raise money to meet the needs of poor families who depend on the Catholic schools in their neighborhoods.

The schools were in jeopardy because population declines during the 1980s resulted in many inner-city Catholic schools falling on hard times. The diocese could no longer support many programs it had funded.

"This was certainly cutting edge at the time," said Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, chancellor of Saint Vincent College, who worked closely with Archbishop Wuerl. "It's still seen as a model program that others are trying to duplicate in other parts of the country.""

The annual budget for all the Extra Mile schools is about $1.9 million, which comes primarily from donations and a portion of the interest from its $17 million endowment.

A survey conducted by the diocese last year showed 96 percent of the pupils who graduated from Extra Mile schools graduated from high school within four years. About half of them went on to either higher education, the military or trade schools. Not one has ever failed ninth grade.

"If you look at the attendance rate of kids in our schools, it's 94 to 95 percent attendance," said Sue Vertosick, director of programs for the diocese. "We have 35 percent perfect attendance at some schools. We don't lose a lot of families unless they are moving out or there are custody changes or factors beyond our control."

Along with academics and religion, the schools encourage positive images of African-American culture.

Photographs of famous black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass cover the walls of classrooms at St. Agnes. A painting of Jesus portrayed as a black man hangs in the front foyer at St. Benedict the Moor.

"What we work for is to help them give back to the community. We want them to be a credit to society," said Sister Margery. "As difficult as things can get, I've never not enjoyed walking in this building."

Christina Woodson, 12, steps to the center and prays with her fellow cheerleaders at St. Agnes School. Her sister, Natasha, is hidden in the group.
Click photo for larger image.
Irma Woodson is a grandmother raising her four grandchildren and caring part time for her grand niece, MyYonna Davenport, 5, foreground. Her grandchildren, all Woodsons, attend Catholic schools. Lamar, 16, left, goes to North Catholic. Mrs. Woodson holds Hasan, 8. Next to her is Natasha, 10, and Christina, 12, with her arm around Natasha. The four youngest go to St. Agnes School in Oakland.
Click photo for larger image.

Tim Grant can be reached at or 412-263-1591.


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