Chicago's Catholic schools struggle after state scholarship program ends

CHICAGO - When the state ended the program that funded scholarships for low-income children to attend private and religious schools, it hit Chicago’s Catholic community hard.

About half of the students attending St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village are on scholarships. Fifty-seven are refugees from Ukraine. With the Illinois Invest in Kids Act ending, those funds are gone.

St. Nicholas Cathedral School was the community hub for Ukrainians forced from their homeland when Russia invaded in 2022. Mothers arrived with school-age children, traumatized, in a foreign place. But the school accepted hundreds of new students, with help from state-funded scholarships. The program ended in December.

Now, their education is in jeopardy. It’s the situation for thousands of students attending private or religious schools.

Alina Pakhomova has two children, ages 11 and 8. They left their entire lives in Ukraine. But at school, they have a bit of familiarity.

"People who speak our language, people who have our culture, it’s very important for them. It makes it easier to live in America," Pakhomova said.

She said if she has to enroll her children in the neighborhood public school, it would be like starting over.

Nataliia Melnyk teaches preschool.

"I am in the program as a refugee. My daughter is in second grade on a scholarship. It is very important for us," Melnyk said.

Principal of the school, Anna Cirilli said they are asking families to contribute what they can to the cost of school, about $7,000 per year.

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"We’re looking for additional partners to match, we’re talking about low-income families. We are going to be looking to the community for support," Cirilli said.

Some of the Ukrainian students had to go to multiple schools before arriving in Chicago. At St. Nicholas Cathedral School, for the first time in a long time, they feel at home.