BLOCS builds up Catholic schools

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Tara Latanzo has sent her sons, fifth-grader Alex and sixth-grader Johnny, to Annunciation B.V.M., 1148 Wharton St., since preschool. Schooled at the now-closed St. Paul’s, Ninth and Christian streets, and St. Maria Goretti High School, now Ss. Neumann-Goretti High School, 1736 S. 10th St., she had feared an economic setback might necessitate removing her pair of cherubs from the school.

“I love being able to send my sons to a school that, No. 1, is molding them spiritually, and that, No. 2, is close,” Latanzo, of the 800 block of Federal Street, said. “Sending them there is kind of like sending them with family.”

Representing 13 elementary schools within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, 50 students, including the Latanzos, were in attendance at the official launch of the Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS) Bright Futures Scholarship Fund Nov. 24 at the Center -City based Roman Catholic High School. The group, which included five learners from Annunciation B.V.M., 1148 Wharton St., comprises half of the recipients of two-year scholarships that will give financially-challenged families one fewer worry.

Tuition for archdiocesan elementary schools differs, but Regina Tanghe, Annunciation’s principal, noted her school’s range is $2,880 to $3,300. Latanzo contacted Tanghe once her difficulties arose, and funds became available last month. Their appearance will keep her from considering new schools.

“I had done no research on other schools. I had no interest. I want to keep peace of mind,” Latanzo said.

Alex does, too. He cited math as his favorite subject, but he spoke highly of learning about religion and the bond with his friends and family that his school helps to forge.

“I am happy for this scholarship,” the 10-year-old said. “I would have felt sad if I would have had to go.”

Inside the high school’s library information center, the children joined with parents, principals and program supporters to learn of BLOCS’ mission to make economic barriers a non-factor in choosing a high-performing school. Chairman Michael G. O’Neill detailed his Conshohocken-based company’s provision of awards that will allot $1,000 for this and next school year to each bright-eyed book bag toter.

That system contains a stable of high-performing schools, which O’Neill noted are institutions where at least 70 percent of students perform math and reading at grade level. Scholarship recipients include those who had been on a financial assistance waiting list, those who previously attended Catholic school before financial hardships caused them to withdraw and current parochial institution learners whose families are struggling.

The scholarships derive from a $750,000 bequest from Robert C. Dunn, a Bryn Mawr contractor who died last August. For the aforementioned school years, BLOCS will endow the program with an additional $130,000 of fundraising drawn from more than 70 businesses and corporate partners.

“We had 6,000 children we could not help,” O’Neill said of last year’s difficulties in adding more students to the 20,000 the company has aided since 2002. “With our funding, we will be able to offer 35 more scholarships this year, with plans to increase the figures to 1,000 per year.”

An $80 monthly donation could facilitate a child’s entry into one of the five-county archdiocese’s 182 elementary schools. O’Neill asked that donors make a four-year commitment to what he tabbed as “the least expensive, highest return investment, an education in the Catholic school system.”

BLOCS Executive Director Joe Garecht never wants any student to leave Catholic schools until graduation and certainly wants more children at the schools’ desks.

“For Catholic schools, just barely surviving isn’t an option,” he said.

His organization’s initiative allows for immediate enrollment into a family’s preferred Catholic elementary school. It also seeks to link a student to a sponsor who will financially assist that learner during his or her Catholic school career.

“We bring potential sponsors to schools to give them a sense of the facilities and the work ethic of the students,” Garecht said. “We want to take students all the way through their eighth-grade year.”

For RoseAnn Bougioukas, a former South Philadelphia resident who now resides in Kensington, Garecht’s admission suits her finances just fine. The mother of third-grader Santino, lauds Annunciation for its approach to educating and to ensuring parents they have made the right instructional selection.

“I had heard it is a good school,” Bougioukas, who had also considered fellow Passyunk Square school St, Nicholas of Tolentine, 913 Pierce St., said. “It has been so helpful in making our lives easier. Everyone who interacts with Ms. Tanghe and Father Ron [Jakows, Annunciation’s pastor] should feel blessed.”

Her son enjoys knowing his education will continue in his mother’s old neighborhood.

“I like my friends and teachers. Playing with computers is fun, too,” Santino said, inadvertently referring to the facts that all of the archdiocese’s schools have Internet access and most have wireless connections.

Second-grader Journey Leonard shares Santino’s love of technology. She and sister Charneice, an eighth grader, are enjoying their first year in a Catholic school. Last year, Journey attended Stephen Girard Elementary School, 1800 Snyder Ave., and Charneice had lessons at a Center City charter school.

“I had always wanted a better education for my girls,” their mother, Helene Leonard said.

She made the switch then encountered financial woes that prompted a talk with Tanghe.

“I am extremely excited to be an Annunciation parent,” Leonard, of 20th and Wharton streets, said. “The curriculum is a bit different, but teachers give more attention to students.”

Journey enjoys that attention, while Charneice relishes her role as a class representative.

“I like making adjustments to new situations,” the older Leonard child said.

In the expansive library center, the Annunciation students fraternized with one another and their parochial peers. Through the generosity of Dunn, who left most of his estate to Catholic charities and education, other schools’ libraries soon will have more eager information seekers. For Geracht, himself a product of Catholic schools, last week’s celebration signals a new era in Catholic instruction.

“I want for us to be in every school,” he said, mentioning that Sacred Heart of Jesus, 1329 E. Moyamensing Ave., will join the initiative, which covers only tuition and no travel costs, next year. “The best days for Catholic education in Philadelphia are ahead of us.” SPR

For more information, visit www.blocs.org.

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com or ext. 124.

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