The Archdiocese of Chicago's Office of Catholic Schools had two extra things to celebrate as it observed Catholic Schools Week from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6.
The first was the $1.4 million Gratitude Fund that gave monetary awards to all archdiocesan school educators and staff. The second was impressive test results from the i-Ready assessment exam, which showed that students in archdiocesan schools exceeded national averages during the pandemic.
Through the Gratitude Fund, each full-time employee received $250, which was added to paychecks Feb. 5. Part-time staff received up to $100, depending on the number of weekly work hours.
The school system employs about 5,000 people in 159 schools.
"The idea originated with just an outpouring of gratitude on the part of the Archdiocese of Chicago and, as chairman of the school board, we also had a generous outpouring of gratitude from the board for our heroic essential workers," Geno Fernandez, archdiocesan school board president, told the Chicago Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper.
The archdiocese started raising money in early December and readily received donations for the fund from regular and new donors as well as corporations that don't normally give to faith-based causes, said Jim Rigg, archdiocesan superintendent of schools.
"I think there was recognition that our educators and school employees truly had gone above and beyond this year," he said.
Teachers, administrators and staff are on the front lines educating children and keeping schools open when many schools remain engaged in remote learning and donors appreciated their commitment, Fernandez said.
"I have never seen such a unanimous response from major donors, pastors and leaders of parishes, community members and corporations in the Chicagoland area than I have seen in this response," he said.
Like many others, Fernandez appreciates how educators and staff responded to the pandemic.
"Every parent that I talk to, not just as a member of the school board, but as a father, the overwhelming amount of gratitude for the Catholic school system in Chicago is palpable and the Gratitude Fund is a token of the gratitude," he said.
Educators, administrators and staff implemented health and safety protocols that allowed the schools to reopen for in-person education last fall.
"They have trained their students and monitored those students in those protocols," Rigg said, adding that many teachers are educating both in-person and remote students. "Because of their exceptional work, we feel that we were justified in raising funds and then giving them a special gift in recognition of their service."
As the money was distributed, the Office of Catholic Schools celebrated the results from the i-Ready standardized assessment exam that showed students performed much better this year than the national average despite the pandemic.
In November, national results of the test, which evaluates students' aptitude in math and reading, were released.
The data showed students in predominantly white schools were 1.2 to two months behind in their learning and students in predominantly nonwhite schools were three to five months behind, said Paula Fernandez, director of strategic execution and analytics for the Office of Catholic Schools.
She compared the national data to local results to see how the children performed.
"What I found that was most startling and extremely joy-making was that neither of those large subgroups experienced drop offs. In fact, both of those groups experienced 100% of learning growth expectations," she said.
"So not only our overall student body but also the subgroups -- English language learners and those who go to high poverty schools -- all of them achieved 100% or more of growth expectations in both reading and math. This absolutely bucks the trend," she said.
The positive results validate the work educators have done and continue to do to in adjusting to the realities of the pandemic, Rigg said.
"We announced the move to virtual learning on Friday, March 13, and most of our schools were up with virtual learning the following Monday. I know a lot of other school systems took days or even weeks to fully implement virtual learning and even then, there were struggles as to quality," he said.
"I think, again, due to the hard work of our educators, we were able to pivot very quickly and continue quality learning throughout the spring and then, of course, this year we've been able to open up our schools for in-person learning," Rigg added.