The possible dream

  • Written by Nathan Whalen
  • Published in NW Stories
 At left: Rafael and Marybell Russo are thankful that they can give their sons Adrian, 10 (left), Daniel, 8, and Rafael, 11, a Catholic education at St. Mary Magdalen School in Everett. Above, the brothers goof around on a playground structure at the school. Photo: Stephen Brashear At left: Rafael and Marybell Russo are thankful that they can give their sons Adrian, 10 (left), Daniel, 8, and Rafael, 11, a Catholic education at St. Mary Magdalen School in Everett. Above, the brothers goof around on a playground structure at the school. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Making Catholic education affordable for every family is Everett school’s goal

Rafael and Marybell Russo had long looked forward to sending their three boys to Catholic schools.

The Everett residents wanted their sons schooled in a faith-filled environment like they had while growing up in Sonora, Mexico. Rafael and Marybell had loved attending Catholic schools, where they made lifelong friends and learned life-changing lessons.

Catholic schools, Rafael said, taught him to respect others and avoid judging them. And they imparted the values important for developing a tight-knit family.

“I loved the education I had and she loved the education she had,” Rafael said.

So when it came time for their oldest son to start school, the Russos checked out a Catholic school, only to discover that Rafael’s earnings from maintenance and construction work wouldn’t cover the tuition. So they enrolled their son in public school, and the younger ones followed.

Four years later, an acquaintance told the Russos about St. Mary Magdalen School in Everett, which was working hard to make Catholic education affordable for anybody interested.

The Russos definitely were interested. But their boys, Rafael, Adrian and Daniel, were hesitant about leaving their friends at public school — and wearing uniforms. That changed after the family attended an open house at St. Mary Magdalen in early 2015.

“‘Mommy, we love it here,’” Marybell recalled her children declaring after the event. With the help of financial assistance from the school, the boys were enrolled the next school year.

“We are so thankful that they gave us the opportunity to be there,” Marybell said.

Today, Rafael and Marybell feel a special connection to the school families at St. Mary Magdalen, where they share the faith and milestones such as baptisms and first Communions.

“It makes you closer and trust people more,” Rafael said.

Growing in diversity

When the Russos enrolled their sons at St. Mary Magdalen, they became part of a school community growing in diversity.

A decade ago, 90 percent of St. Mary Magdalen’s students were Caucasian. Today, classrooms are filled with more than 400 students of various backgrounds, including Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander and African-American. Just 46 percent are Caucasian (see box).

“We want the school to be a reflection of the parish,” explained Kristin Moore, the school’s development director.

St. Mary Magdalen also reflects economic diversity. “We have families on extreme ends of the financial spectrum and everything in between,” said Principal Zack Cunningham. Guiding the school is a simple goal: finding ways to make its education more affordable and accessible, he said.

One way is through the Fulcrum Foundation (see box), which has provided $180,000 in tuition assistance grants to St. Mary Magdalen school families since the 2004–05 school year. Some 35 percent of students at the school receive assistance on a sliding scale to help pay the $6,870 annual tuition, Moore said. Every family receiving assistance still pays a portion of the cost. “We want our families to have a stake in their children’s education,” she said.

After the economic crash a decade ago, Moore said St. Mary Magdalen and many other Catholic schools experienced declining enrollment and increasing costs. Boosting enrollment at St. Mary Magdalen meant reaching out to more families, so the school set out to attract its Latino and Vietnamese parishioners.

There were plenty of obstacles to overcome: family finances, language barriers and the fact that parents sometimes find it difficult to ask for help, Moore said.

The school’s outreach effort began in early 2014 with Moore attending the parish’s Spanish Masses, where she spoke in Spanish about the school and met families after Mass. “One of the things I was trying to establish is a warm and welcoming environment,” she said. “A warm smile is cross-cultural.”

That person-to-person contact paid immediate dividends, with 20 new students enrolling.

“Once you put the word out there, it spreads faster than the internet,” Moore said.

Photo: Stephen Brashear

Many languages, one community

Step into a pre-kindergarten classroom at St. Mary Magdalen and you’ll get a glimpse of the school’s multicultural environment. The students speak their native languages — Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Swahili and more — but they’re learning English as well as American Sign Language.

The kids use ASL to pray the Our Father twice a day (and ask permission to use the bathroom). ASL gives them a common language and a way to participate in their education, said teacher Joanie Duplantier. “Children at this age really need to be active in their learning.”

They aren’t the only ones learning. During the summer, Rachel Scherger, St. Mary Magdalen’s diversified learning specialist, and three other teachers began a year-long program, “English as a New Language.” The course, funded by a Fulcrum Foundation diversity grant, will help them better assess non-English speakers and teach them English.

Students are encouraged to continue speaking in their native languages. “It’s important that they have a first complete language,” Scherger said. Through their native language, children learn about grammar and sentence structure, which benefits them as they learn English. And it’s important for parents to continue reading to their children in their native language. “Kids get a foundation in reading while keeping their heritage and tradition alive,” she explained.

Since some parents at St. Mary Magdalen don’t speak English, the staff is working on several fronts to make them feel welcome — from translating documents into three languages to using interpreters and a wireless interpretation system (purchased with another Fulcrum grant) for some of the school’s major events.

In addition, Moore created a weekly “parent ambassadors” group to help new Hispanic families learn about the school and resources available at school and in the community. The parents support each other, and the families have become best friends, Moore said.

The Russos are part of this tight-knit group, happy to be active members of the school community. “We want to always be involved with what our kids are playing and doing. We always want to be involved in their education,” said Marybell, who is treasurer of the parents club.

St. Mary Magdalen offers rich experiences for the Russo boys: sports and music for 11-year-old Rafael, and science projects about lightbulbs and beetles that captured 10-year-old Adrian’s imagination last year. As for 8-year-old Daniel, he especially appreciated his second-grade teacher: “Mrs. Peinado is a nice teacher because she is family,” he said.

As the brothers embark on the new school year, with Rafael entering middle school, their dad is busy figuring out how to come up with the money so they can continue their Catholic education in high school.

“We think [Catholic] education is the best thing we can give them,” he said.

About the Fulcrum Foundation

Established in 2002, the nonprofit Fulcrum Foundation promotes and supports Catholic schools in the Seattle Archdiocese, primarily through tuition assistance, financial assistance to schools in need, and initiatives that promote academic excellence and faith formation.

“It’s going back to the roots of what Catholic schools were meant to accomplish,” said Anthony Holter, Fulcrum’s executive director.

St. Mary Magdalen School in Everett has received $230,000 in support from Fulcrum since the 2004–05 school year. The school was highlighted in a video at the foundation’s 2017 “Celebration of Light” fundraiser, which raised $1.4 million. Learn more at


By the numbers: St. Mary Magdalen students

46 % Caucasian

21 % Asian/Pacific Islander

15 % multiracial

13 % Hispanic

5 % African-American

Nearly 90% Catholic


Northwest Catholic - September 2017