It's a grant the pontiff would appreciate: A South Philadelphia Catholic school that serves predominantly poor immigrant students is getting $1.4 million to improve and expand.
The gift to Independence Mission Schools - the network that runs St. Thomas Aquinas and 14 other former Archdiocese of Philadelphia parish schools in low-income neighborhoods - comes from the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP). It is the well-funded nonprofit's largest grant to a Catholic school to date.
To St. Thomas Aquinas, at 18th and Morris Streets in Point Breeze, the money will make all the difference, said Vince Mazzio, principal of the school, which has students in prekindergarten through grade 8.
It will pay for a reading specialist and other staff, for repairs to infrastructure, and for technology. It will allow for teacher training and project-based learning for students in the upper grades.
"It's going to open up a lot of doors," said Mazzio. "It's going to have an unbelievable impact."
St. Thomas Aquinas has long served a diverse student body. Currently, half of its 300 students speak English as a second language; the school has robust Chinese, Hispanic, Vietnamese, and Indonesian populations. The average yearly household income of school families is just over $30,000.
With the grant, the school can expand to have up to 450 students.
Independence Mission Schools was formed in 2012 as a way to keep urban Catholic schools afloat. The organization operates a scholarship model, allowing parents - many of whom are not Catholic - to contribute what they can, supplemented by donations and foundation support.
The network currently serves about 4,700 children.
Anne McGoldrick, Independence Mission Schools president, said St. Thomas Aquinas is uniquely positioned to thrive.
"We have all the ingredients for success," McGoldrick said. "We have room to grow the school, and great leadership in place there. They've built a great faculty team, and the community really embraces the diversity. It's a special place."
St. Thomas Aquinas previously received money from the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, $137,000 last year to come up with a strategic plan for transformation.
The larger grant is a sign that PSP - founded in 2010 with a goal of raising $100 million to expanding strong charter, traditional public, and Catholic schools - has confidence in the school's ability to grow.
Jessica Pena, director of PSP's Great Schools Fund, said the organization was "very excited to make this grant."
"They're a fantastic team," Pena said. "They're aligned and focused on students, outcomes, and hard work."
Mazzio, St. Thomas' principal for the past three years, said that it was fitting that the grant announcement came during Pope Francis' first visit to this country.
"His spirit is welcoming, and that's what we've always been," said Mazzio.
"We want," McGoldrick said, "to bring back Catholic education to do what it is meant to do: to serve the poor and immigrants."