A great article in the U.S. Catholic called an Unexcusable Absence: Catholic Schools Recruit Hispanic Students.  As I was very involved with the Latino Task Force at Notre Dame and worked closely with Fr. Corpora to help launch the Catholic School Advantage Campaign, I can say with confidence that this article hits the nail on the head.

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.

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