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New Catholic scholarship program expanding to Russellville

Northwest Arkansas foundation looking to expand in state to help middle-income families

Published: February 18, 2021   
© Ljupco Smokovski |
Expanding a private Catholic scholarship program to St. John School in Russellville will increase the number of children who can have a Catholic education all the way through high school.

A Catholic scholarship program that rolled out to two Arkansas institutions in the 2020-2021 school year is expanding to a third next fall, with eyes on more growth in the future.

Growing Catholic Education, a private nonprofit foundation based in Northwest Arkansas, announced St. John School in Russellville would join Sacred Heart School in Morrilton and St. Vincent de Paul School in Rogers in offering the scholarships. Foundation board members delivered the good news to Russellville congregations to kick off Catholic Schools Week Jan. 31.

“It’s always wonderful to have more assistance for our families,” said Marguerite Olberts, assistant superintendent for marketing and public relations with the diocese’s Office of Catholic Schools. “Any entity that’s trying to do that and has the same goals and mission that we do, it’s good to partner with them.”

Robbie Estes, founder and executive director of Growing Catholic Education, said the choice to include Russellville in the program was based on its location 28 miles from Sacred Heart School.

“St. John was a logical fit because of its proximity to Sacred Heart,” he said. “As kids finish fifth grade at St. John, they then have a real opportunity to continue at Sacred Heart for sixth grade and up.”

The addition of St. John School will boost the number of scholarships awarded from 32 for the current school year to 44 in 2021-2022. The Russellville school will initially receive funding for six $2,000 scholarships.

The Rogers and Morrilton schools received $64,000 in scholarships this school year. The scholarships follow the students through 12th grade as long as they remain in Catholic education and income requirements are met.

“If you look across the state of Arkansas, Catholic elementary education is going to cost around $4,000 to $5,000. So, our scholarships cover roughly half of that,” Estes said. “As you get to high school [the awards] jump up to $3,000 a year.”

This is the second scholarship program to come online for Arkansas parochial students in the past three years. In 2018, Denver-based ACE Scholarships announced 130 awards were being made available for nine Catholic schools in Fort Smith, Hot Springs, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Russellville and Tontitown. Combined, those scholarships totaled roughly $250,000.

Growing Catholic Education targets a different student demographic than ACE, which serves low-income families who meet the requirements for the federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program and have applied for financial assistance. GCE, by contrast, focuses on households that earn too much to be eligible for programs like ACE but still struggle to meet tuition.

“Our number one and only criteria is a family falls into a middle-income range, relative to the counties where they live,” Estes said. “It’s county income numbers we’re using, so it’s different for a family here in Benton County versus a family in Conway County.”

Estes, who formed the foundation in 2009, recently left the corporate world where he was a controller with Wal-Mart for 20 years. He now works part-time at Ozark Catholic Academy in a similar capacity in addition to managing the foundation and plotting its growth.

“Currently, we’re just in those three schools, but our plans are to go outside of the diocese,” he said. “The first two schools we were with we had a lot of relationships there already, our board members did. So it was easy to start there. We’re certainly looking to grow, and I’ve started a couple of conversations with schools as to where we go next.”

The foundation is funded entirely through individual donations. To learn more about Growing Catholic Education, visit For details on how to apply for a scholarship, contact the participating three schools.

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