Administration hopes sliding scale helps diversify student body

Kristen Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

When the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia founded Saint Gertrude High School in 1922, they wanted a school in Richmond that would give young women the educational and social tools to not only learn about the world, but to lead it. Providing that kind of school 96 years later comes at a price — tuition of $18,530 per year.

To help parents provide their daughters with the kind of environment and education SGHS provides, the school is launching a Flexible Tuition Program, beginning with the 2019-2020 school year. As it is based on a sliding scale, it will require families with more resources to contribute more than those with fewer resources.

The amount a family pays depends on several factors. SGHS uses a system called FACTS which looks at the family’s assets and liabilities; adjusted gross income; family size; number of children attending private school; and other aspects. Those factors determine their Flexible Tuition Rate.

While no student can be granted completely free tuition, some families could be eligible for a reduced tuition rate of up to 80 percent. Although most will not qualify for a rate that low, the program opens doors to families who would otherwise not even bother with applying, thinking the school to be out of reach, according to Renata Rafferty, SGHS head of school for four years.

The program is not solely about money; it’s about social justice, according to Benedictine Sister Glenna Smith, vice president of the SGHS board of trustees.

“We have always wanted every girl who wanted a Catholic education to be able to have one,” she said, adding she would like to see students of non-Christian religions apply.

Rafferty said now is the time to introduce the program.

“Our world is growing smaller and smaller through technology and travel. In order to succeed, students need to have experience with all sorts of people, beliefs, and economic backgrounds. We don’t want to eliminate anyone from our community,” she said, noting the school is striving to create a diverse student body that reflects the diversity of Richmond and the country as a whole.

Approximately 60 percent of the 200-member student body is Catholic, with the remainder Christians of other denominations. Rafferty noted that Catholic schools offer “the opportunity to interact and engage with peers of many faith traditions around matters of faith, morals, and a shared fundamental understanding of a right relationship with God.”

“That can’t happen in a public or specialty high school,” she said.

Being an all-girl school is also essential to the success of SGHS, according to Sister Glenna.

“Single gender school is one thing that all research shows is very beneficial to girls, especially in math and science and leadership,” she said. SGHS boasts a rigorous STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program that encourages young women to pursue careers in those fields. Rafferty agreed.

“Every young woman here has the ability to fulfill her leadership and academic potential,” she said. “Once we take the boy factor out of the picture, girls get far more excited about school because they are not competing with boys.”

Drew Firment, whose wife and one of his daughters are alumnae of SGHS, and whose other daughter is currently enrolled, is pleased with the Flexible Tuition Plan because of the opportunity it affords others.

“The Flexible Tuition Program at SGHS is a reflection of core Benedictine values of creating a diverse and inclusive community,” he said. “The program offers families equal access to the amazing opportunities at SGHS that made such a positive and lifelong impact on my wife and daughters.”

Rafferty said the school, which relies entirely on tuition and its endowment for funding, has received no pushback about the program from any parents — even those who will continue to pay full cost of tuition.

“This could not work without the Saint Gertrude community continuing to be charitable,” she said, noting once more families understand what the Flexible Tuition Program is meant to achieve — to create a diverse and inclusive community of strong young women working together to learn and lead — more will be inclined to give.

Well aware that the cost of a Catholic high school education is considerably higher than that at a Catholic elementary school, Rafferty said continuing Catholic education through high school is paramount for students.

“There is no substitute for a continuum of Catholic education from kindergarten through high school. Boys and girls in Catholic elementary and middle school grades are receiving a solid foundation in the core teachings of our faith,” she said. “Our children are essentially learning ‘the rules of the road’ of our faith in grammar school. A Catholic high school provides the ‘behind the wheel’ portion of faith education.”

Editor’s note: For more information about the Flexible Tuition Program, please visit https://www.saint gertrude.org/flexibletuition.