Unexcusable absence: How Catholic schools reach Hispanic students

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Catholic schools have largely failed to attract Hispanic Catholics, but some parishes have found innovative ways to draw them in.

As her Puerto Rican immigrant mother had done with her as a child growing up in Chicago, Jennifer Bonesz sent both of her daughters to Catholic schools. Athena, 14, attended from preschool through eighth grade, and Damary, 8, from preschool through third grade.

But after a divorce coincided with a decrease in the financial aid she was receiving from her parish to put her daughters through the local Catholic grade school, the computer support supervisor says she was faced with a sad truth: The cost of Catholic education was suddenly beyond her reach.

Unable to afford the combined $1,350 monthly tuition—more than the mortgage on her home—for both daughters (one now in high school), plus preschool for 3-year-old Xavier, they moved from the city to suburban Des Plaines. The girls enrolled in a public school this year. Athena tells her mother that she now misses attending Mass on Fridays with her classmates, and Bonesz laments the loss altogether.

“It instilled in them a belief system and how your faith and Christianity help you succeed in life,” Bonesz says. When Bonesz was growing up in Catholic schools, “I probably didn’t appreciate it, but now that I think back on it, especially in high school, the focus was on education. It just felt like everyone there knew how each other worked and what they believed in.”

Increasingly aware of such situations, a growing number of the nation’s Catholic schools have launched a quest to attract more Latinos, by far the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. Catholic Church. It’s a movement fueled by three converging trends: An estimated 70 percent of adult Latinos are Catholic, according to Georgetown University researchers. Just 63 percent of 24-year-old Hispanics surveyed had graduated from high school, compared with 87 percent of blacks and 93 percent of white non-Hispanics, according to census data. And numerous studies have found that Hispanic students in Catholic schools perform better than they do in public schools.

At the forefront of this new outreach effort, the University of Notre Dame in December 2008 commissioned a Task Force on the Participation of Latinos in Catholic Schools. The ambitious goal of this project, which reflects complementary desires to close the Latino academic achievement gap and to reverse enrollment declines in urban Catholic schools, is to double the percentage of Latinos attending Catholic schools, from 3 to 6 percent by 2020. Given population growth estimates, this goal means increasing the national enrollment of Latino children in Catholic schools from 290,000 to more than 1 million students over the next decade, according to the university.

Just more than a year into the campaign, Notre Dame’s Father Joe Corpora, the task force’s co-chair, says it’s too soon to see significant growth in Hispanic Catholic school enrollment, but he can tell that awareness already has heightened.

“This has been met with more interest and enthusiasm than anything we’ve tried to do,” Corpora says. “Every pastor and principal has asked us the question, ‘How can we get more Latinos in the Catholic schools?’”

Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education so far is consulting with schools in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Brooklyn, and San Antonio. It has received inquiries from schools in at least 50 more cities but lacks the resources to partner with all of them, Corpora says, noting he has logged 80 trips to those five cities over the past 14 months.

Lost in immigration

While acknowledging that Bonesz’ predicament is very real, the task force has discovered that it’s more than financial constraints keeping most Hispanic families away from Catholic schools, Corpora says. Two other factors are at play: First, in most Latin American countries there is no such thing as a parish school, so the entire concept is new to many Latino immigrants. Used to Catholic “academies” serving only the most affluent families, families do not even check out local Catholic schools. “They have no idea there are scholarships and aid available,” Corpora says.

Also, Catholic schools in the United States have been slow to realize the differences between Latino immigrants and the descendants of Western European immigrants who founded the schools.

“They’re not culturally responsive to Latinos, which means the culture of the school looks nothing like the culture of their homes,” Corpora says. Because many Latino immigrants work hourly wage jobs, for example, they lack flexibility in their schedules to meet with school staff as needed. Also, many schools’ printed marketing materials never reach them, especially those only in English.

“Our schools for years and years served immigrants. When the immigrants stopped looking like immigrants, we’ve never re-invented our schools to serve today’s immigrants,” Corpora says. “The church has not gotten smart enough to adapt to the local clientele.”

In an 18-month pilot project aided by consulting from Notre Dame’s ACE program, the Diocese of Brooklyn is targeting 30 of its schools situated in areas with large Hispanic population growth in recent years. The goal is to boost Hispanic enrollment 10 to 15 percent by this fall, says Brooklyn diocesan schools superintendent Thomas Chadzutko.

Among the most critical elements is a plan to implement a more personal outreach to Latino parents and adopting a more culturally sensitive outlook, Chadzutko says.

“It’s getting involved with Latino celebrations at the parish level, being a part of Latino prayer groups, and just providing them information on what Catholic education is in the United States,” he says.

A personal touch

That emphasis on personal outreach rather than more traditional marketing efforts has worked well for Holy Assumption School in Peekskill, New York, one of the many New York City suburbs along the Hudson River Valley that has seen its Hispanic population surge over the past decade, says Holy Assumption principal Jim Lyons. Enrollment at the school, founded in 1908, peaked at about 900 students in the late 1960s and bottomed out at 140 in the 2007-08 school year.

Enrollment, now about 80 percent Hispanic, has climbed back to 225, with waiting lists in the lower grades.

“We’ve [made] a very pointed attempt to target Hispanics in our parish,” Lyons says. “All the young kids in our parish are Hispanic. We told . . . parishioners that they needed to talk to us about getting their kids enrolled in our school and we’d do anything possible to make that happen.”

Lyons gives much of the credit to the parish’s parochial vicar, Father Louis Anderson. “He stops people on the street and on their way out of church and asks them, ‘Why aren’t your children in our school?’ It was that personal invitation from our pastor, in many cases, that brought people in.”

Lyons says there has been a “learning curve” for the school when it comes to understanding the different cultures of Latinos. For instance, Ecuadorians feel a strong devotion to Our Lady of El Cisne, while Mexican immigrants revere Our Lady of Guadalupe. Strong emphasis has been placed on properly celebrating their respective feast days.

Although the “whatever-it-takes” mentality has proven challenging for the school’s finances, the archdiocese has made more financial aid available, and “some wonderful donors have stepped forward,” Lyons says. “There’s an understanding that if we’re doing God’s work, he’s going to help you take care of everything. If we have empty seats in the classroom, we need to fill those seats, even if it means not everyone is paying full tuition. Their parents are really desirous of a Catholic education for their children.”

Raising the bar

Like many other parts of the country, the Diocese of San Bernardino, California has seen dramatic growth in the number of Latino youths who attend public schools while participating in parish religious education classes on nights or weekends. Miriam Padilla, director of religious education for the diocese, estimates that in her own parish, Sacred Heart in Rancho Cucamonga, about 60 percent of the 950 students in first through fifth grade are Hispanic. She says she recently had to make the classes bilingual so that parents who don’t speak English can help with homework.

Padilla says she thinks her students are “up to par in their religious formation,” but many would benefit academically from being in a Catholic school. She points to well-documented statistics indicating that Latino students who attend Catholic schools are far more likely to attend college than those in public schools.

“Only 12 percent of our Hispanic youth go on to universities,” Padilla says. “That’s pathetic. Who will be leading our country in the future?”

Although the affordability of Catholic schools is an issue for many of her students’ parents, Padilla is trying to raise awareness of Catholic schools generally because many others have never even given Catholic education a hard look. She wants to elevate the expectations Latino immigrants have for their children.

“When you have people emigrating here from Latin America where they’ve only gone to school to the sixth grade, they think it’s amazing just to be able to attend public school through high school,” Padilla says. “They’re already coming in with this attitude, ‘Why would I complain?’”

Rosselle Azar, principal at St. Patrick’s Catholic School in North Hollywood, California, where about 80 percent of the school’s 191 students in kindergarten through eighth grade are Hispanic, credits several new initiatives for her school’s success.

Last March St. Patrick’s devoted entire sessions with parents of children in religious education classes to discussing why they should enroll their children in the school. About 90 families filled out forms saying they were interested in learning more. Fifteen of those families, accounting for 20 students, ultimately enrolled.

“One-on-one with the Hispanic community works much better than just sending out flyers,” Azar says. She has found that Hispanic parents respond best to testimonials from students who are already enrolled in the school and their parents.

This year St. Patrick’s also extended the school day. Students often work on homework during the extra time, allowing them more quality time at home with their families.

“We feel, with them spending more quality time at home with their family, they’ll do better in school,” Azar says.

Hispanic parents, many of whom work multiple jobs, also love the longer school day because it allows them to pick their children up from school after getting off work.

Rather than complaining about the added work, the longer day was the teachers’ idea, despite having had their salaries frozen for the past two years.

“It was very amazing for our teachers to do that,” Azar says.

Just in time

Such efforts keep Notre Dame’s Corpora motivated as he flies around the country to meet with Catholic school officials.

“People are listening, and they want to do something, if only to save their schools and keep their jobs,” he says. “We have closed 1,500 Catholic schools in the inner city in the last 10 years because no one figured out how to get Latinos into them, and they’ll all close unless we can figure this out. There are some days when I wake up and I think it’s too much, it’s too late [to try] to turn around the situation in our schools, and then there are other days when I’m encouraged.”

While St. Patrick’s in North Hollywood has worked hard on the issue, it also has found some success by accident. When the school opened up its summer school program to public school students, several Latino families wound up so fond of the school, they enrolled their children in the fall.

Lucy Gonzalez says she couldn’t be happier. Her 12-year-old daughter, Jamie, had been bullied throughout much of her first five years in a public school. By fifth grade, it had gotten so bad that Jamie cried every morning before school. Lucy so dreaded the thought of putting Jamie in a public middle school that she was giving serious thought to homeschooling.

After trying St. Patrick’s summer program, Gonzalez enrolled her daughter in the school in the fall. Jamie has plenty of friends, her grades have improved, and she’s like a different girl, her mother says.

The $400 in monthly tuition is difficult. “Just to see how well she’s doing, it’s worth it,” Lucy says. “Me and my husband and son couldn’t believe she was actually willing and ready to get up and go to school without a fight. Her self-confidence is so good. She sings in the choir. She’s joined the basketball team. She’s just doing so much better.” 

This article appeared in the February issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 2, pages 12-16).