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Building Belonging: Growth through Acompañamiento

By Jocelyn Smith, Ed.D.

St. John Paul II HS, Guadalupe Procession

As you walk the halls of St. John Paul II High School in Avondale, Arizona, the feeling of new is still prevalent. The high school, which opened in 2018, is the newest Catholic high school in the Diocese of Phoenix. It was intentionally established to serve the needs of the Catholics of the West Valley, most of whom are Latino.


The school colors are black, white, and teal, which are derived from the habit of the Dominican sisters. The teal color comes from Our Lady of Guadalupe's mantle as seen in St. Juan Diego's tilma. This is especially important since Our Lady of Guadalupe is patroness of both the school and the Diocese of Phoenix.

The school is under the leadership of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, also known as the Nashville Dominicans. They presently have five sisters including the principal, Sr. Mary Jordan, serving on campus. Two of the other sisters on faculty hold ties to the University of Notre Dame. One is a graduate of the English as a New Language Hernandez Fellows Program and the other is in her second year of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. It is important that the mission of the school, "to provide an educational environment that promotes a personal encounter with Jesus Christ through prayer, study, community, and service as disciples,” is understood by all who enter.

The school is currently in its sixth year and enrollment continues to climb from 150 to 370. The goal for next year is to reach 400, which is sure to happen with the dynamic team they have created. One of those team members who has been a key contributor the school's growth is Hector Ramirez. As the Director of Admissions, Ramirez leads the team by sharing strategies he learned while attending the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) at the University of Notre Dame in June of 2023.

Belonging is more than a seat at the table. It means celebrating the gifts and talents that are brought to the table.

"One of the first things we did as a school was discuss marketing and social media and how that can be used to better engage the Latino families we serve," says Ramirez. He also presented to the faculty and staff, sharing the statistics and powerful practices that he learned at the LEI summer conference. "I wanted to stress the important values that Latino families share—faith and family—and we have been intentional in implementing engagement strategies to ensure that families feel a sense of belonging at St. John Paul II High School."

A place of belonging remained a focus for Ramirez after his return from the LEI. The school wanted to ensure that Latino families were actively engaged from the first day they stepped on campus. As a priority, he ensured that all of the people-facing staff—director of admissions, dean of students, receptionist, and administrative assistants—were all bilingual.

The first stop on a typical school tour begins at the Holy Family Room. It has a large table and enough chairs to accommodate most large families. When families come for a tour, it extends beyond the parents; siblings and extended family members come too. Having an intentional space and seat at the table says you are all welcome. “We want the whole family to feel like they are a part of the JPII family.” That belonging leads to a better sense of engagement that has been seen this year with new families.

JPII HS_Phoenix_students playing musicBelonging is more than a seat at the table. It means celebrating the gifts and talents that are brought to the table. This was evident in the events that were planned throughout the school year. In December, the school community celebrated Our Lady of Guadalupe by intentionally extending an invitation to grandparents and celebrating Grandparents Day. Those who attended celebrated a bilingual mass with their grandchildren, followed by an opportunity to tour the building.The fine arts department also used the special occasion to incorporate cultural elements such as a baile folklórico with music in Spanish.

Another unique event that took place this past December involved the AP Spanish class. It was called, The Guadalupe Project, a 10-year initiative that began as a way of preparing for the 500th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. Students were invited to pray the Rosary for one of the Novena days leading up to the feast day. Students beautifully led the Rosary, which included different students leading the decades of the rosary in Spanish and a small choir singing many traditional Spanish Marian hymns.

Hector Ramirez and Sr. Mary Jordan_St. John Paul II HS
Principal Sister Mary Jordan Hoover, OP, and Director of Admissions, Hector Ramirez.

Ramirez shared that the role of the full-time madrina has been one of the school's greatest assets, not only for recruiting, but also to ensure that families feel supported throughout their time at JPII. “The financial aid process can be overwhelming for many of our families,” says Ramirez. “The madrina walks alongside them so that they feel supported and understood.” This acompañamiento results in relationships far greater than someone helping a family fill out forms. It transforms. Walking alongside families creates a sense of community and gratitude. As a result, families want to give back by sharing their unique gifts and talents. You will often find family members helping in the concession stand or volunteering at various events, not because they were asked, but because they want to give back to the community that embraced them. 

“The culture of the school is invigorating,” says Ramirez. “I believe this stems from the our mission-driven focus in everything we do.” At St. John Paul II High School, faculty and staff are not just hired to teach the curriculum or ensure smooth operations of the school. They are hired for mission. Likewise, students are held to a similar standard. “Among the admission factors here at JPII, our students must be a ‘good mission fit,’ meaning they can grow by embracing our mission, and that our school can grow by embracing them in the mission. Every decision in the advancement of our school is evaluated through this lens of mission.”

Ramirez offered advice to any school considering joining the LEI, he said, “Do it!  The opportunities to network, resources, and expert advice make it all worth it. Seeing the transformation that the LEI is bringing about in Catholic education is inspiring and hopeful.”

Applications to join LEI Cohort 12 in the 2024–25 school year are open now. To learn more or apply, click the link below. Applications close April 1st. If you have any questions about the Latino Enrollment Institute, please contact LEI Coordinator Jocelyn Smith (


Learn more about the Latino Enrollment Institute