Susan George spends her days raising money for children from low-income families to attend Catholic schools. She has spent 16 years at the helm of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, which has been changing 11,000 students’ lives each year since its inception in 1971. During the pandemic, her role has transitioned to support the more immediate needs of the Inner-City family, which includes their 56 schools, mainly in Manhattan and the Bronx. When the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese asked the nonprofit for $5 million dollars for technology such as Chromebooks for each student, it covered the entire cost.
During COVID, George is also seeing an increase in new families who need assistance due to unanticipated job loss. She received two letters in particular that touched her heart. One was written by a professional violinist and father of two on Staten Island, the other was from a father of three who worked as a security guard at Madison Square Garden. Both fathers, who were always able to provide for their children, suddenly struggled to pay tuition.
The benefits of this program are very much measurable, with 99 percent of its students graduating high school. But for George, it is the religion-based education that sets a foundation for future success. “We feel strongly that life is hard, and no matter what your faith is, you’re welcome in our schools,” she said. “And we teach you that faith is important and that it’s okay to rely on it. And that you’re not alone.”
How have your team, sponsors and the Catholic school teachers stepped in to help during COVID?
I heard many stories in May and June of teachers dropping off food to their families, driving around and making sure they had what they needed. And our sponsors, the most generous, amazing group of people, responded immediately. They covered tuition for the end of the year. We were part of this Catholic Charities’ initiative where we had $500 Visa gift cards for all of our families who were struggling. And my team spent a better part of May and June driving around the Bronx, Staten Island and Upper Manhattan, going to people’s homes handing out gift cards.
I saw on your website that you created a COVID fund.
In the spring, we awarded over two million dollars to 3,000 families to help them pay the remaining tuition that was due for the end of the year. And we’re about to launch again next week to help families who have been affected negatively by COVID with fall tuition payments. Thirty percent of the money that we gave out went to new families who were able to pay tuition until COVID. No child gets more than 75 percent tuition, so with our average elementary school tuition about $6,000, if you factor in what they have to pay a month, the average family pays $360 a month.
Your program organizes field trips around the city. I actually chaperoned Inner-City Scholarship children at the Central Park Zoo with my sorority alumnae group; they are adorable. You also offer basketball and tutoring. What are your programming plans going forward?
We’re not doing anything in person, but we’re doing a lot remotely. We did a camp in August with the Bronx Zoo, which was great. We do these holiday parties for the little ones and they love them, and we’re going to do them remotely. We’re sending the kids all the kits, all the arts and crafts and the cookies. Each kid will get delivered to them a party package and then they can have the party with their friends, which is really cute. We have a group of volunteers who teach art appreciation in our schools. In November, they’re going to get to go to the Met virtually with their teachers.
We’re trying to do as much virtually to not lose the momentum of our volunteers. Even though the kids are spending a lot of time on the screens, we’re seeing if it’s something fun and they get to see their classmates and it’s not for school, they want to participate, especially the grade school kids and especially the girls. They’re just sitting home in their apartment; they’re happy to log on and see the animals up close at the Bronx Zoo.
I am a product of Catholic grammar and high school in Queens, and a Catholic university. What are the benefits to a Catholic school education?
Guaranteed success. Ninety nine percent of our seniors are graduating high school. We always say, if we could just get more people to pay for high school, college kind of takes care of itself, because they are getting tremendous scholarships coming from our schools. You can walk into one of our high schools in the South Bronx and there’s a big sign in the hallway that says, “Leave it outside.” They come in and they get to be themselves. From a very young age, they’re told, “You’re going to succeed, whether you go to trade school or college.”
We truly believe that Catholic school graduates become productive citizens of New York. And that’s the advantage. And what Eva Moskowitz is doing with Success Academy is amazing and she’s amazing. All of those kids are so lucky now to go to Success, and many of them would have been Catholic school kids. The difference is that they’re not getting the religion part.
To learn how to help, visit www.innercityscholarshipfund.org.