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Catholic Schools: A Faith-filled, College-going Culture for Latino Families

January 13, 2015
By Mar Muñoz-Visoso

This year I received a very special Christmas greeting. It was not from the Pope, or the President but from the pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Wyoming, Michigan (Diocese of Grand Rapids).  The two-page letter contained a summary of 2014 significant happenings and events in the life of Fr. Stephen. About half way through the second page the following sentence made me pause: “Enrollment at San Juan Diego Academy is at an all-time high with 170! It is creating a faith-filled, college-going culture for immigrant families.” “Now, that’s the spirit!”  I remember thinking as I re-read the carefully worded sentence.

The K-8 school is the ministry of six parishes. With the support of the local bishop, San Juan Diego Academy opened its doors in 2011 through the collaboration, financial investment and shared vision of the Cathedral of St. Andrew, Holy Name of Jesus, St. Joseph the Worker, St. Francis Xavier/Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Sorrows and St. Mary.

The initiative, they say, was inspired in part by realization of the changing demographics and specific needs of the growing immigrant population, and in part by research conducted by the University of Notre Dame, which suggests that Latino children who attend Catholic schools are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to graduate from college than their peers who attend public schools. With only 50 percent of Latino students in Michigan graduating from high school each year, “the goal of San Juan Diego Academy is to improve the educational outcomes for Latino children in our city”, states their website. Every morning, right after breakfast, the whole school gathers for prayer.  Before they go to class, Mr. Brenes, the principal, rallies the kids with a “Sí Se Puede,” and they respond in a strong voice “Sí Se Puede, I will succeed in school, I will graduate from San Juan Diego Academy, and I will go to college”. And he concludes by reminding them that, “If you believe this in your heart and in your mind, it is going to be possible!” Wow. Talk about believing and inspiring! A great thing too is that half of the 20 students who graduated last summer from the Academy went on to attend Catholic Central High School.

San Juan Diego Academy is only one example among many initiatives around the country to serve the educational needs of Latino children and families and part of an effort to increase their enrollment in Catholic schools.

Another example was recently presented to the Bishops General Assembly as part of a presentation on Catholic Education and underserved populations. In the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, the diocesan Education Office, partnering with the Office of Hispanic Ministry and the community, teamed up to make Catholic Education a viable alternative for Latino children. Through the Segura Initiative, a creative “madrina” approach was developed. The madrina is a field coordinator and recruiter who is a trusted member of the community.  She serves as an advocate for the families and helps them navigate the enrollment process.  This, combined with funds raised by the Latino community itself, assisted by diocesan staff, made it possible for more children to avail themselves of a Catholic education. This approach has helped to increase Latino enrollment considerably throughout the diocese, and even prevented three parochial schools recently from closing. Recruitment is accomplished through word of mouth by pastors with Latino congregations, Latino diocesan and parish leaders, as well as satisfied parents.  

Only a few weeks ago Presentation of Our Lady, a parochial school in Denver, Colorado announced that a  Escuela de Guadalupe, a dual language Catholic school run by an independent board will be occupying its facility beginning in August. Rather than simply closing a good school struggling with finances and enrollment, like many others in recent times,  the archdiocese, and the parish have decided to respond to the changing demographics and needs of the times, including being open to a different governing model. The move will allow the thriving Escuela, founded in 1999, to expand its present K-5 format to include pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade by fall 2018, ultimately serving up to 240 students.

I believe in Catholic Education. And the statistics show that the system works and that Hispanics do much better in Catholic schools. Perhaps it is because “our schools function like communities rather than bureaucracies,” said Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Nebraska, Chair of the Committee on Catholic Education, to the U.S. bishops recently. When economic need is a challenge, more often than not financial help is available.

Having three children in Catholic school is no small sacrifice for my husband and I. But the school was willing to work with us. And we firmly believe that a good Catholic education both sets our children up for academic success and provides them with faith and values that will help them throughout their lives. I encourage all Latino families, Catholic or not, to explore the opportunities available around you, and to consider a Catholic school with a “faith-filled, college-going culture” for your children. It is the best investment in their future.
Mar Munoz-Visoso is executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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