Foundation gift of $1.25 million to fund Aquinas school expansion

MERRILLVILLE – Plans to expand Aquinas Catholic Community School are moving forward thanks to a $1.25 million gift from the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation through Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana.

The gift will fund an addition and renovations to accommodate the school’s rapidly growing student population, up 37 percent since 2017, with construction to begin this spring and be completed by the end of this year.

Aquinas’ growth can be largely attributed to the determination of principal Lisa Gutierrez that every eligible family at her school is able to take advantage of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, which makes a Catholic school education more accessible to families. A broadening of the eligibility formula approved in 2021 has made the scholarship program available to even more families.

“We are overwhelmed at the generosity of this gift and excited to be able to serve even more students with a high-quality Catholic education,” said Gutierrez, whose enrollment stands at 195 in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. With the expansion, capacity will grow to 240.

“Every year it’s like putting together a puzzle, seeing how best to fit everyone in – where we have the biggest number of students and how to assign space,” she added. We’re growing so fast that we have repurposed rooms that weren’t designed to be classrooms into classrooms, so this gift will help us welcome more families into our tight-knit community.

“Our square footage in the school, which houses eight classrooms, is 9,400, and we will be adding 5,500 square feet,” Gutierrez said.

The project will add an enhanced front entrance, a front office, two new classrooms, and space to accommodate students with additional learning needs.

“I am very grateful for the generosity of the White family and their commitment to expanding opportunities for families to receive quality education through our Catholic schools,” said Bishop Robert J. McClory. “The staff and leadership of Aquinas Catholic Community School are passionately committed to provide its students and families with an outstanding education in a faith-based environment. In addition to this gift, I am appreciative of the work Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana has done to support our Catholic schools across the region.”

Dr. Joseph Majchrowicz, superintendent of the Catholic Diocese of Gary Schools, echoed the bishop’s statement of support. “The diocesan schools office is thrilled with the expansion. It has been five years in the making,” he said. “The catalyst was our evolving partnership with Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana. We are so very grateful to Bruce and Beth White and the Dean and Barbara White Foundation for their generosity, demonstrated in their (latest) incredible gift of $1.25 million.”

“For more than 150 years, Catholics in Merrillville have created an opportunity for families to provide their children with an outstanding education grounded in faith,” said Father Ted Mauch, pastor of the recently blended Merrillville Catholic parishes that includes Aquinas Catholic Community School on the campus of St. Andrew church, part of Holy Martyrs Parish. “We see this gift as a tremendous blessing for our Catholic and non-Catholic brothers and sisters throughout the Merrillville community.

“It is a continuation of the ministry practiced since the 1850’s with Merrillville’s Ss. Peter and Paul educating all children,” added Father Mauch. “It is essential that we provide an opportunity to live and teach Christ to young people.

The pastor said he is “excited to be working with Entheos Architects,” an architectural and planning company from Indianapolis that has designed churches and Catholic schools in the state.

Inspired by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Big Shoulders Fund is an independent charitable organization founded in 1986 to create wider access to Archdiocese of Chicago schools that primarily serve students from low-income backgrounds, investing $30 million annually for more than 35 years.

In 2019, Bruce White, founder and chairman of Merrillville’s White Lodging, and his wife Beth, funded the expansion of Big Shoulders Fund’s programming to the Diocese of Gary through a fully funded $16 million gift, pledged over 10 years.

Since then, Aquinas and other diocesan schools have benefited from increased operational support and academic programming through Big Shoulders Fund, including access to updated technology, curricular resources, and instructional and data coaching. Furthermore, Big Shoulders Fund is working closely with schools to improve long-term viability by focusing on increasing enrollment, providing financial aid opportunities and offering students access to STEM scholarships, enrichment and summer programs.

“This gift from the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation, and the significant growth Aquinas has experienced that necessitated this expansion, is a testament to the collective dedication to the broader Big Shoulders Fund mission to ensure that all families have access to a quality, values-based education,” said Dan Kozlowski, managing director of Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana. “Bruce and Beth White made it possible to significantly enhance the vitality of Catholic schools in Northwest Indiana by funding the expansion of Big Shoulders Fund’s programming to the region in 2019, and we are incredibly appreciative of the continued support they have provided.

“Under Lisa’s leadership, Aquinas is one of the schools in the BSF network that has experienced the most growth, and this expansion will allow them to serve even more students comfortably and effectively,” he added.

“The expansion of Aquinas will assist our partners at the Big Shoulders Fund in carrying out their mission of making affordable, high-quality education available to students, and to support the educators who have accepted that important calling,” said Bill Hanna, executive director of the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation.

Gutierrez knows more growth is ahead. “Our smallest class right now is our eighth grade, which has nine students, and once they graduate, other grades have up to 25 students, with our pre-kindergarten and kindergarten capped at 20. This fall, we may need a portable classroom until the expansion is done.”

The Aquinas principal, recognizing the many responsibilities Father Mauch has with the reorganization of the Merrillville faith community, praised his support and leadership. “To recognize our need and support it 100 percent so quickly is greatly appreciated,” Gutierrez said.

“Big Shoulders Fund has been so supportive since Day 1 in the diocese,” she added. “The first thing they said was, ‘We don’t need anything from you, just how can we help?’ They helped us get the federal free and reduced cost lunch program going, which took a year. So, for a year they provided our students with (free) lunches, right before the pandemic.”

Dr. Majchrowicz noted that the Aquinas school expansion could end up giving a boost to all diocesan schools. “Any time you have a gift of this size, it holds the potential of having a trickle-down effect throughout other schools in the diocese. We can always hope that indirectly it will be felt throughout the diocese, and possibly inspire others to become involved in philanthropic activities in other schools.

“I think it is important to note that enrollment across the diocese is up more than 10 percent for the 2021-22 school year. With the expanded Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, we are cautiously optimistic. In my opinion, the future looks bright for continued growth in the Catholic Diocese of Gary schools.”

As to whether increased enrollment could prompt the diocese to reopen any closed schools, Dr. Majchrowicz did not rule out the possibility. “Time will tell … at this point there have been no formal discussions that have involved the schools office regarding opening any of our schools that have closed,” he said. “If this growth continues, I would say that one should ‘Never say never’ in regards to the question of reopenings.”

The Diocese of Gary counts nearly 5,400 students under Catholic instruction in its 17 grade schools and three high schools and serves many more students in parish-based religious education programs.