MERRILLVILLE — After two years of homeschooling, Mason Cuevas, 4, and Bella Cuevas, 7, will head to the classroom Sept. 6.
"I am really nervous about sending them to school, but I've heard nothing but great things about Aquinas," their mom, Lina Cuevas said. "I really honestly do feel like my kids will be safe here."
The Cuevas family, like many others, is new to Aquinas Catholic Community School.
Since 2017, the Merrillville school has grown by 37%. However with only eight classrooms, 10 grades and over 200 students, "we literally cannot fit the kids in the building," Principal Lisa Gutierrez said.
Soon, the school will be able to accept some 50 to 100 more students thanks to a $3 million expansion.
Children in dark green uniforms greeted friends after a summer apart, and parents chatted with teachers before the Wednesday morning groundbreaking. Aquinas worked with the Big Shoulders Fund, the Catholic Diocese of Gary and the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation to make the expansion a reality.
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The Dean and Barbara White Foundation donated $1.95 million to the project, which is slated to be completed in the first few months of 2023. The project will add 5,500 square feet to the current 20,000 square-foot school building and another 1,700 square feet will be renovated. Two classrooms, a teacher's lounge, a nurse's office and a secure triple door entryway will be added.
"Our Catholic schools provide an exceptional opportunity for our young people to grow in faith and knowledge and virtue ... in a compassionate, loving, caring, safe and holy environment," said Bishop Robert McClory of the Catholic Diocese of Gary.
Gutierrez recalled talking about expansion plans back in 2016 when she first started. Even then, when the school only had 136 students, space was tight. Over the years, parts of the rectory and the back of the church have even served as classrooms.
Even with the space constraints, Marisa Hurst said the staff has created a positive atmosphere at the school for her 10-year-old son, Nicholas. Hurst said all the Aquinas families are very involved, regularly volunteering at the school and attending meetings with teachers and staff.
Though not quite old enough to be a student, Hurst's 8-month-old son Ezra already had an Aquinas onesie.
"I love seeing all the new families," Hurst said. "That is always a good sign."
The Big Shoulders Fund has worked with low-income Catholic schools in Chicago for 36 years. However, in 2019, a donation from the Dean and Barbara White Foundation helped the organization spread to Northwest Indiana. Aquinas was one of the first schools Big Shoulders visited when the organization expanded to Northwest Indiana. Going forward, Big Shoulders plans on working with more schools in Hammond, Gary and East Chicago.
Dan Kozlowski, managing director for Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana, said Aquinas' "growth is thanks in large part to the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program." Under the controversial school choices scholarship program, also known as the school voucher program, private school tuition costs are offset for eligible families. Public schools across Northwest Indiana have opposed the program in the past as it diverts state funding away from public schools.
"(This expansion) tells children, 'We believe in you, you matter, your right to a high-quality Catholic education matters,'" Gutierrez said.