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From LEI to Demo Day: St. Stephen School Breaks Down Walls to Welcome Latino Students

Written by Manny Fernandez on Thursday, 04 February 2016.

St. Stephen School Glenwood Springs, COWhen Glenda Oliver, principal of St. Stephen Catholic School in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, returned from a trip to the University of Notre Dame last summer, she knew she needed to tear down some intrusive walls, both figuratively and literally. Glenda was at Notre Dame to attend ACE’s Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI), an initiative that identifies and assists Catholic schools by teaching principals and select faculty leaders how to transform their schools to attract and serve Latino students more effectively.

One of the most important things Glenda learned at the LEI was that she and her staff needed to build relationships with Latino families, and she realized that her school, the way it was constructed, was not conducive to that. “We needed to make our reception area more welcoming and warm,” says Oliver. We wanted our Latino families, and all of our families, to feel welcome here at St. Stephen the minute they walk through those doors.” So Glenda decided to remove the walls in the reception area to make it more inviting. They then gave it a fresh coat of paint, added a crucifix, and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a symbol of hope and faith for Latino Catholics. The results were immediate. Parents noticed the change and have commented on how much more open, bright, and inviting the room is, and the area has become a symbol of how St. Stephen is not just a school, but a large family.

"We needed to make our reception area more welcoming and warm. We wanted our Latino families, and all of our families, to feel welcome here at St. Stephen the minute they walk through those doors."

The reception area was only the beginning for Glenda and her team. Spurred on by what she learned at the LEI, along with one of her strongest advocates, the pastor, Fr. Bert Chilson, whom she describes as “a gift” to the school community, Glenda continued in her quest to fill the empty seats in her classroom by reaching out to the Latino community even more than she had before. A self-professed “borderline introvert”, Glenda shook off her nerves and began attending the Spanish Masses at her parish. Despite her limited proficiency, she delivered a message in Spanish about the value of a Catholic education, and that St. Stephen School could make that opportunity a reality. “I am not bilingual, but I wrote out a short script in Spanish and read it to the Latino parishioners,” says Oliver. “I did this at multiple masses, and at first, nobody knew who I was. But I was persistent, and after a few months, they not only knew who I was, but they were even giving me their babies to hold!”

Glenda also quickly implemented a madrinas/padrinos program. That select group of mothers and fathers has been instrumental in getting the word out to the Latino families in the wider community about the quality of whole-child education at St. Stephen Catholic School. Glenda says St. Stephen’s is already reaping the benefits of that program through the outstanding work of those mothers and fathers; she expects the madrinas/padrinos program to grow stronger and help them even more in the future.

Aside from all the hard work Glenda and her team put in, she also had a bit of divine intervention. Early this school year, Glenda’s business manager, Chris, told Glenda that they were about $25,000 short in their budget. She and Glenda both immediately turned to prayer, and the next time Glenda approached Chris, there was a parishioner there who said he would like to donate $25,000 to the school -- the exact amount they needed.

Later that winter, an alumnus of Catholic schools, who owned a tree farm, wanted to help the school in any way possible. He donated over 600 Christmas trees to the school. Laughing when she recalled that initial conversation with the donor, who wished to remain anonymous, she says “When he first called, I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do with all these trees, plant them?’” However, she and Fr. Bert opted to try and sell the trees, and they turned this incredible gift of Christmas trees into over $11,000 for the school. Perhaps more importantly, it became a wonderful opportunity for the school community to come together. Families of all ethnicities came out in full force to not only buy trees, but to volunteer to sell the trees. “By the time we ran out of trees,” says Oliver, “I had families practically begging me to allow them to volunteer. We were having so much fun!” The Christmas tree sale was such a hit that it even made the local news

The money from the tree sale went towards the St. Stephen’s capital campaign to build a new school. They need to raise $3 million to begin construction on the new building, and they are currently at $2.5 million. Glenda also hopes to raise her enrollment at the elementary school so much that they can begin to build the first Catholic high school in Glenwood Springs.

Before Glenda and her team attended the LEI in June of 2015, the Latino population at St. Stephen’s was 31 students, accounting for 13 percent of the school’s total enrollment. In the three short months following their return from Notre Dame, with the intentional recruiting efforts of Glenda, Father Bert, and the entire St. Stephen faculty and staff, the Latino population has risen sharply to 55 students, now making up 29 percent of the school’s population. That represents a 77 percent increase in Latino enrollment, a remarkable number considering the short amount of time that St. Stephen had been actively and intentionally recruiting Latino students.

Despite their efforts so far, St. Stephen School is just getting started. Glenda is excited about the future, the potential for even more students, and the wonderful diversity of the school. She is really looking forward to beginning construction of their new, expanded facility, which, in this case, are walls that she will gladly build.

Interested in learning more about the Latino Enrollment Institute? Visit the LEI page to start your application or nominate a principal!

Latino Enrollment Institute Inspires Growth in Texas Catholic School

on Monday, 11 January 2016.


St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School is the only Catholic school in Port Arthur, Texas in the Diocese of Beaumont. Almost 70 percent of the students are from underserved minority groups, with the majority of the students living in economically disadvantaged homes. The Hispanic population is rapidly increasing in Southeast Texas, and today there are an estimated 84,000 Hispanics living within the diocesan borders.

In 2014 St. Catherine School, with the help of its dynamic principal Haidee Todora, turned to the Latino Enrollment Institute for support in enrolling this growing demographic. Catholic Extension subsidized Haidee’s participation in the LEI at the University of Notre Dame. This program identifies and assists Catholic schools with a substantial unmet capacity and motivates principals by teaching them and select faculty leaders how to transform their schools to attract and serve Latino students more effectively.

Read more about St. Catherine of Siena School's story at

Las Posadas: A Journey to Find Room for Jesus at Christmas

Written by Katy Lichon, Ph.D. on Tuesday, 08 December 2015.

Katy Lichon, Ph.D., Director of the English as a New Language (ENL) program, offers advice and resources for educators to celebrate the Latino cultural tradition of Las Posadas

CampusLasPosadasWalkIf your school has Mexican-origin families, the celebration of Advent might center around the vibrant reenactment of seeking posada, Spanish for accommodation or an inn. Las Posadas is a nine day celebration beginning December 16th and ending December 24th (Noche Buena) that commemorates Mary’s nine months of carrying Jesus in the womb.

The Las Posadas procession typically includes two individuals dressed up as María and José with a crowd of angels, shepherds, wise men, pilgrims carrying poinsettias, and musicians. The group carries candles and sings La Canción Para Pedir Posada, an interactive song of begging for shelter. The song’s verses are sung alternately by the crowd outside and the family inside. Eventually the crowd is welcomed into a different home each night where they typically recite a rosary around a nativity scene, enjoy a meal, and break open star-shaped piñatas representing the star of Bethlehem.

The traditional Mexican celebration has deep roots in Spanish Catholicism and Aztec culture. The celebration recreates the scene of Joseph and Mary searching for shelter in Bethlehem. By celebrating Las Posadas in our Catholic schools classrooms, we can draw attention to our own journey to find room for Jesus at Christmas as well as participate in and honor a rich tradition of our Latino students.

Here are a few resources that will help you better understand the celebration of Las Posadas and incorporate it into your instruction. 

  1. Start by introducing Las Posadas to your students. This fun and heartfelt video explains the tradition of Las Posadas.

  2. Learn how to celebrate Las Posadas with the help of this short guide for lay leaders, musicians, and clergy. The Canto Para Pedir Posada is central to any posadas celebration. This article provides the lyrics in both Spanish and English, and this video provides the music, as well as the lyrics.

  3. Incorporating the posadas traditions into your classroom instruction is a great way to engage students in this rich cultural tradition. Check out this series of fantastic lessons plans related to Las Posadas, as well as this unit on piñatas.

  4. For a more in-depth look at Las Posadas, here are some great books to read in class: The Night of Las Posadas, Uno, Dos, Tres, Posada!, and The Legend of the Poinsettias (a video reading of the text).

  5. Get hands on! Check out these fun and easy craft ideas, including painting poinsettias, creating poinsettia ornaments, and a piñata coloring page.

  6. Since no celebration is complete without food, watch this video to learn more about some of the traditional foods that are prepared and served during Las Posadas, and check out this recipe for buñuelos.


Have some ideas of your own? We’d love to hear other ways your Catholic schools celebrate Las Posadas in the comments below.

Want to learn more about culturally sustaining pedagogy? Apply to the ENL Program today.

In the Spotlight: Manuel Fernandez Leading Latino Outreach Efforts in the LEI

on Thursday, 15 October 2015.

manuel fernandez headshotFor Manuel “Manny” Fernandez, the newest member of the Alliance for Catholic Education’s Catholic School Advantage team, service to the underprivileged and the importance of education have always been a way of life. A son of immigrant parents who both grew up in poverty—his mother, born in the Dominican Republic and growing up in Spanish Harlem, and his father a child of the Spanish Civil War —Manny was blessed with powerful witnesses to the impact of education as a proven pathway out of poverty. Growing up in Southern California, he watched both of his parents pay forward the opportunities that their education had afforded them by serving as teachers for over three decades in inner-city Los Angeles schools.

Following in the footsteps of his parents, Manny received his degree in Urban Learning—a teaching program designed specifically for educators working with at-risk children in impoverished neighborhoods—from California State University in Los Angeles. He then taught at St. Vincent Elementary School, a Daughters of Charity school located just south of the heart of downtown Los Angeles, for over eleven years.

While teaching in L.A., Manny became familiar with ACE through a number of interactions with Catholic school and archdiocesan administrators affiliated with the organization as either alumni or team members. Never did he expect, however, to find himself leaving the city he had always called home to move to South Bend, Indiana, where he’d play an integral role in advancing one of ACE’s most promising initiatives. But as providence would have it, South Bend is exactly where he landed. While teaching at St. Vincent School in L.A., Manny met his wife, Anne, a South Bend native and alumna of Notre Dame who was, at the time, serving as a Vincentian volunteer at the school. They were married three years later, and shortly thereafter headed to South Bend, Indiana, in order to be closer to family.

Manny quickly resumed his role in the classroom, teaching math and science to English language learners at Goshen Middle School for three years. Each year he was recognized by the state of Indiana for his students receiving the highest growth in test scores per the Indiana Department of Education’s testing growth module.

While always a devoted advocate of quality education, whether it be in public schools or private, Manny returned this past June to the mission in which his heart truly lies – transforming lives through Catholic education. Manny joined the Catholic School Advantage Campaign to lead the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI), an initiative whose singular focus to close the Latino achievement gap by increasing access to Catholic schools for Latino families, paralleled the mission to which he had been devoted his whole life. “It’s just a perfect fit,” says Manny. “I have always worked with Latino children from low-income families, and working with ACE allows me to continue to do so, albeit on a macro-level. It’s a win-win situation, as not only do I get to play a role in making the gift of a Catholic education possible for Latino children, but we are also helping to sustain Catholic schools and ensure that they thrive in what can be a difficult climate.”

As the program director of the LEI, Manny will work closely with Catholic school principals and administrators around the country, helping to guide their Latino outreach and recruitment efforts. The LEI is currently in its fourth cohort, and since its inception in 2012, has worked with more than 110 schools. Manny is actively planning the LEI for the summer of 2016, exploring opportunities for growth, and serving as a personal mentor to five schools in the current cohort.

Manny and his wife, Anne, live in South Bend, Indiana, and have two children, Alyssa Rae (4) and Luke (1).

Celebrating Día de los Muertos: A Melding of Indigenous and Catholic Traditions

Written by Clare Roach, M.Ed. on Thursday, 15 October 2015.

Clare Roach, Coordinator of the English as a New Language (ENL) program, offers advice and resources for educators to celebrate the Latino cultural traditions of Día de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos 2Celebrating Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in Catholic school classrooms in the United States is a magnificent way to encourage students to pray for and honor deceased family and friends. It also provides an opportunity for Mexican and Central American-origin students to witness their school community learning from the beauty and richness of their own cultural heritage. Observing Día de los Muertos in school doesn’t just help students celebrate their culture, it helps them sustain it.

Like Halloween, Día de los Muertos is a holiday linked to the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls in the Catholic liturgical calendar. But, unlike Halloween, which is largely about candy and parties, Día de los Muertos is a family-centered holiday that celebrates the lives of loved ones who have died and the generations of ancestors who have gone before us. From family picnics at grave sites to lavishly decorated home altars to the aroma of marigolds and pan de muerto, the celebration of Día de los Muertos is as beautiful as it is profound. The following resources and lessons will help children young and old learn about this magnificent holiday.



  • Dia de los Muertos 3Food for the Ancestors is a 60-minute DVD produced by PBS that explains Day of the Dead through food, art and celebration. It takes viewers to the streets, homes, bakeries, cemeteries and churches of Puebla, Mexico, and presents one of the most colorful, in-depth portraits of the holiday. Order this DVD from PBS for teachers to watch and integrate into their lessons.
  • Discover Day of the Dead is a 5-minute video from The Discovery Channel that shows a quick glimpse of how Day of the Dead is observed in Patzcuaro, Mexico.
  • The PBS cartoon characters, Maya and Miguel, explain the holiday to young viewers in a 22-minute episode. Here’s a two-minute snippet of the program in which Maya’s abuelita explains why the beautifully decorated calavera (skull) is so important to her.


Reading Materials

  • The November 2010 edition of Scholastic News magazine focuses exclusively on Día de los Muertos. You can find digital downloads of the magazine here.
  • "All Saint’s Day All Night" is beautiful story from Highlights for Kids magazine (November 2010 issue) that shows how a similar holiday is celebrated in Poland!  It provides another great opportunity to spotlight how different cultures celebrate the Feast of All Saints and All Souls.


Art and Activities

  • Create ofrendas: Have students make alters to celebrate loved ones who are deceased. This lesson plan from the University of North Carolina excellent ideas. Extensions of this activity include:
    • History: Create an ofrenda for historical figures.
    • Language Arts: Create an ofrenda for characters in a novel.
    • Religion: Create an ofrenda for a saint or decorate an altar in the church or cemetery on the school's property.
  • This Day of the Dead Educational Activity Guide is a wonderful collection of readings and activities (includes a step-by-step lesson on papel picado) produced by the Museum of Mexic-Arte in Austin, Texas. It takes a very cross-cultural perspective and provides multiple ideas for art activities.


Want to learn more about culturally sustaining pedagogy? Apply to the ENL Program today.


Photos by Nathan Solis, courtesy of the Eastsider LA.
Originally appeared in Students learn about love, death & Dia de los Muertos at an East L.A. cemetery, October 30, 2014.

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