John Paul Lagos said school keeps him busy — and he loves that.
What he loves best about being a student at the Academy of St. Louis are the new friendships he’s made. It’s evident, seeing the interaction with his classmates at the lunch table.
Oh, and John Paul’s favorite subject is science. He loves doing science experiments. “I have some new friends to hang out with,” John Paul said. “And we get to talk about religion. School’s very fun.”
The high school sophomore is one the first recipients of the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (MOScholars) awards. The Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation (TTEF) is one of three St. Louis-area nonprofit organizations granting annual scholarships of up to $6,375 to eligible students from low-income families or with special needs. Scholarships began with the 2022-23 school year. To date, 75 students have received a MOScholars award from TTEF.
John Paul’s parents, Fred and Kathy Lagos, learned about the scholarship program from Terri O’Daniel, executive director at the Academy of St. Louis. O’Daniel prepared families for the application process by hosting Zoom meetings and sharing information on the program. To date, eight students at the Academy of St. Louis — a private Catholic school that offers individualized education for students with cognitive learning disabilities — are among the first recipients of a MOScholars award.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” O’Daniel said. “My biggest sorrow is when a family can’t come here because of the cost. This is 100% a game-changer for us.”
In-person, faith-based learning
The Lagoses had sent their son, John Paul, to public school from the time he was in kindergarten. Diagnosed with autism at age 9, public school for the most part fulfilled his special needs in the classroom.
The pandemic — and the virtual learning that came with that — gave the Lagoses, members of Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin, pause to consider another learning environment for their son, who at the time was entering the eighth grade.
“JP wasn’t getting work at his level during virtual learning,” Kathy Lagos recalled. “I was concerned about him falling behind.”
The Lagoses were familiar with the Academy of St. Louis, which serves students from preschool to 12th grade, many of whom are on the autism spectrum. The school moved to the campus of St. Joseph Parish in Manchester in 2021.
They liked that the school could meet both their son’s academic and spiritual needs. “I love the Catholic faith aspect,” Fred Lagos said. “They go to Mass every Friday. And it’s on a parish campus, so they get to see a priest.” A permanent deacon also is among those teaching religion to students.
Kathy Lagos said she has seen a change in her son’s personality, and his interest in school has increased. “The first year at the academy, I’d ask, ‘How was your day?’ I’d get a 20-minute dissertation. I was like, ‘Who is this child?’ The teachers say how well-mannered he is. He’s so enthusiastic about school.
“It’s built so much confidence in him,” she said as she teared up. “It’s awesome to see him have a typical life for once.”
Making Catholic education affordable
Tiffany Pargo learned about the MOScholars program via a brochure her mother found. Pargo’s daughter, Rian, was approaching school age, and she was hesitant to enroll her daughter in the public school district where they live.
Pargo learned about St. Roch School in the West End of St. Louis from a friend whose child went there. Rian attended the Catholic elementary school for PreK. This year, she is in kindergarten as one of the first MOScholars recipients in the state.
The smaller class size at St. Roch was attractive to Pargo, who added that it lends itself to more personalized learning. Pargo, who is Presbyterian, also appreciates the Catholic values that her daughter is learning in the classroom.
“I like that they provide emotional intelligence along with the education — things like learning morals and dealing with conflict,” Pargo said. “We believe in God, so it’s more of a reinforcement. It makes me feel more comfortable knowing she’s getting a good education and life education.”
Pargo was laid off from her job in November 2020; just a few months prior, she went back to school for additional studies. Being able to qualify for a MOScholars award will allow her the space to continue her studies and internships, while having flexibility to accommodate her daughter’s school schedule.
“It was just right on time as far as assistance with tuition,” Pargo said. “I wanted her to be able to have the best opportunity to be educated outside of the home. This allowed me to keep her where she is and not struggle as much with tuition. I hope that Rian can get the most out of it — she’s excited about learning.”
The MOScholars tax credit scholarship program was created by a Missouri law passed in August 2021. Individuals and businesses may receive 100% tax credits for contributions made to the designated educational assistance organization in their area.
More specifically, an individual or company will receive 100% tax credits up to 50% of their Missouri state tax liability each year. A minimum of $500 must be contributed to qualify. The private contributions will fund MOScholars scholarships allocated across Missouri for new, incoming families who desire a Catholic or private education.
The Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation was one of six nonprofit organizations in Missouri chosen as educational assistance organizations to manage and distribute scholarship funds. The foundation will grant annual scholarships of up to $6,375 to eligible students, prioritizing students from low-income families or with special needs. Scholarships will be offered starting with the 2022-23 school year.
To learn more about the MOScholars program and how to apply for a tax credit, see ttef-stl.org/moscholars. For additional details on the program from the state Treasurer’s Office, see treasurer.mo.gov/MOScholars/.