National Catholic Sisters Week: Sister Suzanne Fitzmaurice
Sister Suzanne always has time for students
As we continue our celebration of National Catholic Sisters Week, we introduce you to Sister Suzanne Fitzmaurice, who is following in the footsteps of her Benedictine sisters as a teacher at a Kansas City high school. Sister Barbara Ann Mayer wrote this profile, which first appeared in the winter 2016 issue of Threshold.
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The first thing one notices on Sister Suzanne Fitzmaurice’s desk at Cristo Rey High School in Kansas City is the worn stuffed animals. “Students sometimes pick them up and take them to their desks,” Sister Suzanne said. “I think they’re comforting and calming for them.”
She also puts a famous quote on the bulletin board every day and students have to write about whether they agree or disagree. “It’s to get them used to giving an opinion and think for themselves,” she said.
The Catholic college prep high school is sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. It was begun 10 years ago, patterned on the Jesuit Cristo Rey schools around the country that are different from regular high schools. These schools have a corporate work study program that enables students to pay half the cost of their education. “They work one day a week at banks, law firms, hospitals, grocery stores, medical offices, KCPL, Hallmark, and non-profits,” explained Sister Suzanne, who has taught at Cristo Rey for six years. “We have about 120 businesses involved. When they graduate they have some job skills and four years of employment on their resumes.”
The school provides transportation to and from their job as well as breakfast, lunch, and a snack during the day. It gives freshmen and sophomores their own IPads and juniors and seniors receive Tablets. Funding for the school comes from their annual fundraiser “Dancing with the Stars,” grants, student jobs, donations, and a minimal tuition fee.
The racial make-up of the school is about 43 percent black, 50 percent Hispanic, 7 percent white. Of the 100-125 freshmen, about 70 percent graduate. Many are the first in their families to graduate from high school. Most enroll in college and about 70 percent earn a degree. “Nationally, under 10 percent of minorities below poverty level complete college,” Sister Suzanne noted.
Colleges who buy into the Cristo Rey concept are called “Network Sponsors.” They provide scholarships, waive application fees, and allow students to take their ACT’s for free twice. Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, and Benedictine College in Atchison are among the Network Sponsors.
“The most rewarding part of teaching at Cristo Rey is seeing kids succeed when they thought they couldn’t,” she said, “and seeing college as a reality.” She believes the key to success is being part of a community that cares and supports the students. “We keep in touch with our graduates and they often e-mail us asking for prayers or sharing good news or seeking tutorial assistance.”
“Sister Suzanne has many gifts,” Mary Kallman, principal of Cristo Rey, said. “She is dedicated, funny, outgoing, and direct. The students like and respect her and she has great rapport with them.
“She is one of the senior teachers who collaborate to work on interdisciplinary writing and research projects. They have studied genocide, the Holocaust and other historical events. The team helps students become better writers to prepare for college.”
Andrew Yim, one of her students, said, “She’s an interactive teacher and knows how to adapt to her students. In morality class, she teaches us about the inner workings of the mind, what’s right and what’s wrong.”
“She’s clear and thorough; she explains things so you can understand,” added Anett Amaya, a senior from Guatemala. “I’m not afraid to ask her questions outside of class. She always has time for you.”
Although less than 50 percent of the students are Catholic, they are required to participate in Catholic prayer services. “Sometimes students ask how you know what religion to pick,” Sister Suzanne said. “I tell them to ask themselves, ‘What makes you a better person? What brings you closer to God’?”
Teachers at Cristo Rey have grueling schedules. Sister Suzanne is on deck at 6:30 a.m. and works until 5 p.m. That doesn’t include grading which takes at least another nine hours a week. She is the only religious on the faculty; three Sisters of Charity are in administration.