NEWS

Cedar Rapids families rely on aid to afford private schools

Most private schools religious

Second-grader Emily Wiegand organizes her backpack with newly purchased school supplies at home in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. The Wiegand family receives financial aid enabling them to attend St. Matthew Catholic elementary school through a School Tuition Organization. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Second-grader Emily Wiegand organizes her backpack with newly purchased school supplies at home in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. The Wiegand family receives financial aid enabling them to attend St. Matthew Catholic elementary school through a School Tuition Organization. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Darrell Wiegand was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last spring, St. Matthew Catholic Elementary School kicked into gear, delivering home-cooked meals and offering rides and child care for their three daughters.

It’s that kind of support — along with small class sizes and religious instruction — that make Darrell and Lindsay Wiegand glad they decided to send their girls to St. Matthew, 2244 First Ave. NE.

“I felt like my kids would have an advantage going there, and I would do about anything I could to have them go there,” Darrell said.

But at $2,800 per year per child, St. Matthew would have been too expensive for the family without financial aid, he noted.

The Wiegands applied for scholarships through the Our Faith, Our Children, Our Future School Tuition Organization, which administers a state program providing financial aid to families who want to send their children to accredited private K-12 schools. The program is open to families at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $85,230 for a family of five.

Private donors provide the scholarship money — $18 million statewide last year — but the state contributes up to $12 million a year in tax credits for donors.

Across Iowa, 137 private schools benefit from the program. All but five of the schools are religious. One that isn’t is Summit Schools, a preschool-through-fifth-grade secular private school at 1010 Regent St. NE, in Cedar Rapids.

Cassie Mitvalsky depends on financial aid to send her son Landyn, 9, to Summit.

“I’m a huge public school proponent,” said Mitvalsky, a social worker at Family First Counseling Service. “We were at Polk (Elementary) and it closed. We gave another public school a chance and it didn’t work. So we went to Summit and it’s been nothing but awesome.”

Summit classes are capped at 16 students and the school has longer recesses, which Mitvalsky said help the kids focus better in the classroom.

The need-based scholarship Landyn gets from the Independent School Association of Eastern Iowa, an STO that represents Summit and Iowa City’s Willowwind School, makes private school possible.

“It allowed me to pinch pennies and make it attainable,” Mitvalsky said.

The Wiegands, both Iowa City/Coralville natives, went to public school growing up.

After college, they moved to Tulsa, Okla., where their daughters, Jaden, 10, and Emily, 7, went to public schools. When the family moved to Cedar Rapids last summer, Darrell visited several schools, including St. Matthew.

Principal Joe Wolf gave Wiegand a tour and told him about the financial aid.

“I was really pushing for public school because it would be easier and less expensive,” said Lindsay. But Darrell was adamant St. Matthew was the place for Jaden and Emily, who will be joined this fall by Samantha, 5.

Lindsay now loves St. Matthew, where Jaden sings in the choir and is learning guitar. The school has regular Wednesday masses, which Darrell and Lindsay also attend. Darrell’s cancer is in check for now, but the family knows whatever happens they have support from their biological and school families.

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