November 9, 2012

Speaker says Catholic schools helped transform his young life

By John Shaughnessy

Rodney ByrnesThe video screen showed the football highlights of a younger Rodney Byrnes making the kind of dazzling moves that led him to be a star in high school and later at Harvard University.

Yet, when the video ended and Byrnes rose to talk as the featured speaker at the 2012 Celebrating Catholic School Values Awards event on Oct. 30, the now-successful businessman acknowledged that one of the best moves in his life wasn’t one that he made.

Instead, it was a move that his parents made when they decided to transfer him and his two brothers to Catholic schools.

“My parents had the courage to send their three boys to Catholic schools,” Byrnes told the 600 people at the archdiocesan event at Union Station in Indianapolis, which raised a record $940,000 to help children in need attend Catholic schools.

“It really changed the trajectory of my life and my brothers’ lives. It was such a wonderful experience. It goes back to that commitment to service. From the minute you walked in the door, it was [an emphasis on] service and prayer. It’s something you can’t explain to an outsider. But it’s paid dividends for all of us and our family.”

It’s also led to his commitment to living a life that offers hope and opportunity to children and adults who face difficult odds in today’s society.

A 2001 graduate of Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis, Byrnes has served as a member of the boards of the Catholic Youth Organization and the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies—a consortium of four center-city Catholic schools in Indianapolis.

A vice president for Strategic Capital Partners, he has also played an instrumental role in a $150 million project to revitalize the Meadows area of Indianapolis, an eastside area that has long struggled with poverty, crime, drugs and blight.

“We’ve done 250 units of high-quality, mixed-income housing,” Byrnes told the audience. “It’s something we’re all very proud of.”

His pride extends to the project’s investment in three charter schools in the area, including one for adult learners. Still, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the project in late 2011, Byrnes found himself thinking of the difference that the Catholic Church has been making for at-risk children for a long time

“In the back of my mind, I always think the Catholic Church in Indianapolis has been educating these at-risk kids for decades,” the father of two young daughters said. “It’s something that’s so powerful for me. We’re doing great things in the Meadows, but I want to applaud and thank all the educators in the Catholic school system here because it’s done a fantastic job, and it’s a model for the country.”

The success of archdiocesan schools was showcased throughout the celebration that also honored three individuals who represent the values of Catholic education—Providence Sister James Michael Kesterson, Dennis Sponsel and Fred Klipsch. (Related story: Awards honor people who use Catholic school values to make a difference)

More than 99 percent of graduates from the 11 Catholic high schools in the archdiocese go on to higher education, said Harry Plummer, executive director of Catholic education and faith formation for the archdiocese.

He also told the audience that 93 percent of archdiocesan students passed state testing assessments in English/language arts while 91 percent of archdiocesan students passed the state tests for math.

“In addition to these educational benefits, Catholic schools in the archdiocese save taxpayers over $200 million each year, confirming one of the unfortunately best kept secrets about our schools—the huge economic benefit their presence provides to the communities they serve,” Plummer said.

“And thanks to School Choice in Indiana, our schools are bringing their remarkable educational product to lower income families at an ever increasing rate—with almost 2,300 entering our schools this year alone, over twice as many as last year.”

In its 17th year, the annual Celebrating Catholic School Values Awards event has raised more than $5.5 million to help students in need attend Catholic schools in the archdiocese. This year’s event focused on promoting the importance of Indiana tax credit scholarships as a way to make a Catholic education possible for children from lower and moderate income families.

The $940,000 record amount this year included about $810,000 that was raised through the Education CHOICE Charitable Trust for Tax Credit Scholarships, according to G. Joseph Peters, associate executive director of the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education.

“The CHOICE Trust now has applications for an estimated 800 tax credit scholarships for students in the archdiocese,” Peters said before the event.

“These scholarships will allow students entering our schools in kindergarten or first grade to qualify for an Indiana school voucher after spending two semesters on a scholarship—a potential benefit of $54,000 to $64,000 if the family meets the income guidelines for the next 11 to 12 years. The donor also gets a 50 percent state tax credit as well as a federal tax deduction.”

Byrnes has seen how those fundraising efforts have had an impact on the school that helped to transform his life—Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School.

“Right now, of the 636 kids at Ritter, 111 are on vouchers,” he noted. “Think about that. They’re serving the most diverse population in the archdiocese. And these kids are all doing fantastic. That’s something I’m proud of as an alumnus. The way they’re preparing these kids for college is very impressive.”

That success has made him even more committed to giving back to others.

“It’s because of people like you that my brothers and I were fortunate enough to go to Catholic schools, and to get financial aid,” Byrnes told the audience. “It’s something that never stops. And now it’s more important than ever.

“I encourage all of us to really step up and continue this effort. I’m here to serve with you. I love the archdiocese, and I love being back in Indianapolis. I’m blessed to be back here.” †

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