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Unprecedented $150M donation aims to boost Northwest Indiana’s Catholic schools

Dominican Sister Mary Jo Sobieck, center, who works with the Big Shoulders Fund and assists at St. Stanislaus School in East Chicago, Ind., leads her students in song at the annual Catholic Schools Week Mass at the Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, Ind., Jan. 30, 2023. The Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation is donating $150 million to the Big Shoulders Fund for schools in the Diocese of Gary, Ind. It is the largest single investment in prekindergarten-to-grade-12 Catholic education in history. (OSV News photo/courtesy Diocese of Gary)

(OSV News) — In what is described as “the largest single investment” in prekindergarten-to-grade-12 Catholic education in history, the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation is donating $150 million to the Chicago-based Big Shoulders Fund to support Catholic schools in the Diocese of Gary, Indiana.

The gift, which will be made over the next 10 years, aims to improve the schools’ quality, accessibility and sustainability, making them the “highest performing network of Catholic schools in the United States” that could create a national model, said William Hanna, the foundation’s executive director.

Bishop Robert J. McClory of Gary called the donation, which was publicly announced June 12, “extraordinary.”

“One could live their whole lives — and certainly their whole episcopacy — and never be able to make an announcement as significant as this,” he told OSV News. “This is a sign of hope and confidence in our Catholic schools, and a time to rejoice and look to the future.”

The Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation is a nonprofit, private organization that carries on the philanthropic legacy and values of Dean White, a real estate and hospitality industry entrepreneur, and his wife, Barbara. The couple lived about 17 miles south of Gary in Crown Point, Indiana, before their respective deaths in 2016 and 2018 at ages 93 and 92. The foundation has paid particular attention to Northwest Indiana, also known as the Calumet Region, or simply “the Region.”

The foundation is a longtime supporter of the Big Shoulders Fund, which was founded in 1986 to support Catholic schools in Chicago’s most under-resourced communities. The fund invests more than $40 million annually in Chicago Catholic schools and also directly manages 38 of those schools. In 2019, with the help of Dean and Barbara’s son Bruce White and his wife, Beth, the Big Shoulders Fund expanded into the Diocese of Gary. The diocese is home to 17 parish elementary schools and three diocesan high schools currently serving nearly 6,000 students.

The gift follows the 2023 expansion of Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program, a state-funded school voucher program that provides scholarships to Indiana students at private schools in grades kindergarten to 12 to offset tuition costs. Currently, approximately 98% of Indiana students are income-eligible for scholarships, with more than 69,000 participating students in 2022-2023.

“There’s a confluence of factors which makes Indiana uniquely poised to really improve and expand our Catholic educational system,” Bishop McClory told OSV News, noting the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation’s commitment to efforts focused on improving Northwest Indiana, Big Shoulders Fund’s presence, school choice expansion and other community partnerships.

“That combination of both a strong history of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Gary, an infusion of support from community and civic-minded leaders, as well as the opening up of funds for our families through the choice scholarship really makes this a very unique opportunity for us,” he said.

“What we are celebrating is so impactful,” he added, “because we hope that not only will it be a blessing here, but … that it might inspire others throughout the country to say, ‘This might be an opportunity for us to reflect on how we can support our Catholic schools.'”

The school choice scholarship program allows the $150 million donation to be applied not to tuition assistance, but to “performance-based outcomes, capital improvements and other things that augment the experience for not only the students, (but also) the teachers,” Hanna said.

The gift also coincides with improvements in transportation and other infrastructure investments that have attracted new residents to Northwest Indiana, drawing them across its Illinois border, Hanna said.

“The Catholic educational institutions throughout all urban areas in the United States are a critical component of neighborhood stabilization (and) economic development in addition to education,” he said.

While supporting Catholic education meets the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation’s goal of strengthening neighborhoods, the foundation’s board members also “prioritize value-based education” that Catholic schools provide, Hanna said. Some foundation trustees, including Beth White, are Catholic, he noted, and “even those associated with the foundation that are not Catholic in background still value what Catholic education brings.”

The collaboration between the foundation, Big Shoulders Fund and the diocese is key, he told OSV News.

“When you take away financial restraints and empower people, the sky’s the limit,” Hanna said. “It becomes about performance and the objectives and the students; it’s going to be very gratifying to see what we can achieve.”

In a press statement, Beth White said she and her husband, Bruce, who died last year at age 70, “share the belief that education is an equalizer that is paramount to making the world a better place.”

“With Big Shoulders, we have been working together to make a meaningful impact in Chicago and Northwest Indiana,” she said. “Our partners are now poised to do even more in the place we consider home. As we move forward, it is the educational achievement and fulfillment of dreams of every student who walks through the doors of a Big Shoulders school that will truly define the success of this initiative.”

Hanna told OSV News that supporting Catholic schools “is a real mission of heart” for Beth, noting that the first time he met her, she was reading to students at Aquinas Catholic Community School in Merrillville, Indiana.

Dan Kozlowski, executive director for Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana, called the gift “fantastic,” adding that it compounds “the gift of our organization being able to work with the schools to help them become the best versions of themselves.”

“We want to make Catholic education sustainable,” he said. “We are obviously in a state blessed to have the Indiana school choice scholarship program … but it’s so much more than that that helps these schools become successful — our organization working with these schools, holding them accountable, trying out best practices and really making what we do transparent to everybody else, so we can share the great results we have in our schools.”

In the press statement announcing the donation, Indiana Gov. Eric J. Holcomb, who was to join Bishop McClory and other leaders June 12 to celebrate the substantial gift, said he is “so encouraged by this vote of confidence in Indiana education and am beyond thankful for this life changing investment.”

“This remarkable donation from the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation will help change the course for communities through the dedication and hard work of Big Shoulders Fund with the Catholic Diocese of Gary and, more broadly, throughout the Region,” he said.

Colleen Brewer, the diocese’s superintendent of schools, said that more strategic planning is needed before the diocese or Big Shoulders Fund can speak to particular areas the donation may fund. However, she said, the funds will serve as a “big boost” for a schools network already moving in the right direction.

“We’re doing a lot of really good things, a lot of great best practices. This will allow us to really expand what we’re doing … and how we serve our students and families,” she said. “There’s opportunities when I think of counseling services, special education services, fine-tuning curriculum.”

The Diocese of Gary also announced plans to establish this year an independent endowment within the Catholic Foundation for Northwest Indiana to invest additional funds, separate from the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation gift, to supplement compensation for principals, teachers and staff who work in the diocese’s Catholic schools. The hope is for that endowment to grow to $50 million over the next 15 years.

“We want every student to be able to use their God-given talents to the best of their ability, however they’re called,” Brewer said. “At the end of this, I’m hoping to continue to see these students getting into the colleges of their choice, being involved in their community, taking on leadership roles, (and) being connected to their local church, as well.”

With the $150 million donation, “I think we’re able to open our doors to more students and to serve more kids that right now we can’t always serve,” she added, “so I’m excited about that opportunity.”

Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News.

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