Faithful to its mission: Donnelly College provides second chances to inner-city students

KANSAS CITY, Kan.

Donnelly College is blessed with a gift. Despite
repeated monetary incentives to move from its poor, inner-city
environment, it has remained in a single nine-story brick building – an
old hospital gutted and rebuilt into a place of learning.

For nearly half a century, the college has held fast to its gracious
social and academic mission – giving inner-city students a second
chance.

Some suggest the private, Catholic-sponsored school is a rare gem in
this struggling blue-collar city – and in a county where nearly 40
percent of adults lack high school diplomas and countless more fail in
their first attempt at higher education.

“We provide second chances,” beams Donnelly’s president, Dr. John P.
Murry, 63. “I think a lot of people in academics might laugh at us,
call us ‘Second Chance U.’ That’s fine. I take it as a compliment.”

Since 1949, when it was founded by Benedictine sisters, Donnelly’s
mission has remained constant: Give inner-city students – at least half
of whom are living in poverty – a two-year college education and the
promise of much more. Students, many of whom have dropped out of col-
lege before, pay tuition when they can. But Donnelly makes an
irresistible offer to those who can’t: The school pays most, if not
all, tuition if the student simply shows up to class.

A Smart Investment

More than half of Donnelly’s students come from families earning less than $6,000 a year.

“It helps out a lot, believe me,” says Kathaleen Dangerfield, 21,
who got financial help from the school. She graduated in May with an
associate’s degree and plans to attend Pittsburg State University in
the fall. “[With] the help that you get here, there’s no doubt you can
make it.”

Numbers show Donnelly’s investment in a needy student body has been
a smart one. Since 1992, 93 percent or more of its graduates have
gotten jobs or transferred to four-year colleges.

In May, Donnelly graduated 41 students and sent many of them to
four-year schools. Next year, the school hopes to reach even more
students by using money left to it by a priest who died of AIDS.

The college enrolls about 850 students a year, with a racial
breakdown that is 52 percent African American, 17 percent Hispanic, 17
percent white, 10 percent international students, 3 percent Asian
American and 1 percent American Indian.

Because 75 percent of Donnelly’s students live here in Kansas City,
Kan., most of them don’t have to travel far to the school’s modest,
midtown neighborhood.

A Motivating Mission

The building is old but clean, and professors and instructors aren’t
paid very well – on average they earn $23,000 a year. But many on the
faculty insist that Donnelly’s mission – and not professional perks –
motivates them.

The library’s small collection is dusty and worn. Computer
equipment, though advanced by Donnelly’s standards, lags well behind
vastly better funded schools such as the nearby Kansas City and Johnson
County community colleges. Nevertheless, students thrive and often
return Donnelly’s favor.

One of them was George Breidenthal, 48, who graduated with an
associate’s degree in 1969. He’s now president of the Kansas City,
Kan., public school board and serves on Donnelly’s 12-member Board of
Trustees. Bad grades forced him out of Kansas State University after a
year. Then he arrived at Donnelly, where college counselors urged him
to start slow, taking nine credit hours of night school.

“That’s what they’re doing – giving a chance to people who have had
a few problems with their first shot at education,” says Breidenthal.

When the school was founded in 1949, the central city was largely
populated by first- and second-generation immigrants from Europe. They
were predominantly Slavic Catholics whose low incomes made a college
education at more expensive four-year schools impossible.

Breidenthal grew up near the school in an area where gas stations
and grocery stores once flourished. But as crime grew and the
neighborhood’s economic health sagged, businesses moved away.

Several factors conspired against the city, mainly a record murder
rate, illegal drugs and property blight. About 20 percent of the city’s
population has left since 1970, leaving about 150,000 people.

Today, many of the residents of the neighborhoods surrounding
Donnelly are no less able to afford a college than their Slavic
predecessors. Most are poor blacks and Hispanics.

A Generous Pretense

Donnelly is one of a dwindling number of schools – public or private
– that have stuck with the inner-city neighborhood while numerous
businesses beat a path to the suburbs.

“You’re just not going to see two-year community colleges in the
inner city anymore without prosperous businesses,” says Stephen
Gwinnett, marketing director at Gwinnett Technical College in suburban
Atlanta. “Tax dollars alone can’t pay for everything.”

Many of Donnelly’s alumni and some members of the Catholic Church
urged the school to get out. One wealthy Overland Park woman even
offered land to lure the school south in the late 1960s, where surely
it would have enjoyed a larger enrollment and a student body willing to
pay more for a reputable, religious-based education.

But, Breidenthal says, “The college’s mission was to serve those
folks in the inner city who didn’t have the access to that kind of
education.”

Few appreciated the school’s resistance to moving more than the Rev.
Thomas Bettencourt, a San Jose, Calif., priest who read in a newspaper
about the college’s reluctance to leave the inner city.

Bettencourt, who was dying of AIDS at the time, called Murry in 1988
under the pretense of representing a dying friend who wanted to know
more about Donnelly. He couldn’t keep up the front, however.

“I need to correct one thing I told you,” Bettencourt told Murry. “It’s not a friend. I’m the one who’s dying.”

Bettencourt, who died in 1990, left an estate worth several million
dollars in real estate to charities. More than $250,000 of his estate,
to be delivered after the properties are sold next year, will go to
Donnelly. The money will add to the college’s endowment – a $3.5
million fund whose interest helps pay much of the school’s tuition
costs.

A Need to Stay Put

Donna Rashod, 48, a mother of two who grew up just blocks away from
Donnelly, has gotten financial help from the school. She’s pursuing an
associate’s degree in psychology, with hopes of transferring to a
four-year school to study English.

Rashod walked into Donnelly two years ago with little in the way of
money or plans. Now an honor student and working to organize a women’s
fair at the school, she was drawn to Donnelly’s small classes and its
willingness to offer financial assistance – two attributes the school
could lose if it moved away, students say.

“I think what Donnelly stands for is what you wouldn’t have
elsewhere,” Rashod says. “Moving the college, I believe, would defeat
the purpose.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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