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The Spirit Guides Them: LEI Inspires Remarkable Growth at Urban Cincinnati Catholic School

Written by Manny Fernandez on Thursday, 05 May 2016.

holy family schoolWhen Jenny O’Brien first became principal of Holy Family School six years ago, she noticed immediately that there were significant changes that needed to be made. One of the most glaring problems was that Latinos, who were becoming a large part of the community surrounding Holy Family Church, did not feel welcomed by the parish community. Furthermore, the student body at the school, at an all-time low, did not reflect the new demographics because there was little attempt to reach this burgeoning community of Latino families, most of whom had school-aged children. In 2010 the school was only six percent Latino, or nine of the 165 students. Jenny O’Brien saw this and sought to change it.

Jenny knew that this change would not come quickly nor easily. Change is a process—an oftentimes difficult and exhausting one that Jenny knew must be undertaken for the good of the school, the Latino community, and most importantly the mission and vision of Jesus’ Church. With the support of a new pastor, Jenny made sure the welcome mat was put out front and center for all God’s people.

Believing that change would be easier to bear if it came incrementally, Jenny wisely set out to gradually break down any barriers between the school and its surrounding Latino communities. “We started with the basics – a friendly smile, a welcoming spirit, learning a few words in Spanish, etc. We would “ooh” and “ahh” over all the children. Next, we posted signs in English and Spanish stating we were enrolling students for the next school year.”

From there, the Holy Family staff worked to ensure that Spanish-speaking families would feel the school was dedicated to communicating with them, that they were a part of the larger family. Most information sent home to parents was now in both English and Spanish. Translators were made available for conferences and school events. Jenny also knew it would be vital for all her staff to become experts in working with students for whom English is a second language. “I hand selected key staff members to send to various types of professional development on how to work with ESL students and families. From there, these teachers became cheerleaders for our Latino students and their families.”

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Attending the Alliance for Catholic Education’s Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) also played a large role in Holy Family’s turn around. “The LEI was an answered prayer,” Jenny recalls. The conference opened their eyes to a world that Jenny and her staff wanted to get to know more intimately, and they were shown the importance of faith to the Latino community. “Because of that, my staff found themselves going out into various neighborhoods where we knew our families were worshipping so as to share information about our school with them. We hoped that they would not only join our school, but also choose to worship with us as well.” A great form of evangelization dear to Pope Francis’ heart was taking root.

The LEI assigns each school a mentor principal and Yvonne Schwab, Jenny’s mentor, was a major influence on what Holy Family was to become. Jenny was able to tour Yvonne’s school and Yvonne was able to share many insights about the Latino community that her school serves. “It helped open my eyes to the plight of the Latino families. Yvonne shared things we had not dealt with until this year, such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.” Her mentor was also able to show Jenny the various changes that she had made to achieve the sense of family so vital to her Latino students and which Jenny implemented at Holy Family. And in a wonderful twist of fate, Kristen deVault, one of Yvonne’s teachers, was moving to Cincinnati and Kristen accepted an opening at Holy Family, where she is currently the ESL instructor.

The work that Jenny and the entire Holy Family staff and community put into reforming the school paid huge dividends. Enrollment is up from 165 total students just six years ago, to 227 students today, an increase of 38 percent. And Latino enrollment is up from just nine students in 2010, to 80 students in 2016, a remarkable increase of nearly 800 percent.

All the little things that Holy Family did to become a welcoming school for Latino families made an incredible difference in the lives of the children and families it serves. In the end, though, Jenny believes that the number one reason Latino families now feel at home at Holy Family – and most importantly, why they stay – is because of the school community’s welcoming spirit, a “Welcome” mat still implanted in each member’s heart. It is what attracts families of all backgrounds to the school and what hooks them once they are a part of the community. “We really do love each and every one of our families,” says Jenny. “And our hearts go out in a special way to our Latino families because of their plight. Their faith is so amazing and a testament to all of us.”

With that welcoming Spirit guiding them, there is no doubt that Holy Family Catholic School will continue to prosper and give more and more children the gift of a Catholic education.

Special Issue of the Journal of Catholic Education Points to Growing Commitment Among Scholars and Church Leaders to Expand Educational Opportunities for Latinos

on Thursday, 03 March 2016.

jce special issue latino education and the churchProviding further evidence of the growing commitment among leaders in education and the Church to address the challenges and opportunities confronting Latino families and Catholic schools today, the Journal of Catholic Education recently released a special issue devoted exclusively to Latinos, education, and the church. The compilation of essays, which represents a broad cross-section of scholars, advocates, and practitioners, is really one of the first efforts to consolidate educational scholarship on this topic and features an essay co-authored by the Catholic School Advantage Campaign’s Father Joe Corpora, C.S.C., and the Arthur Foundation Endowed Professor of Transformative Latino Leadership and Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, Luis R. Fraga.

In their essay, titled ¿Es Su Escuela Nuestra Escuela? Latino Access to Catholic Schools, they examine some of the strategies designed to increase Latino enrollment in Catholic schools, offer several specific recommendations, and also pose challenging questions for educators and Church leaders on how we might collectively expand the breadth and depth of this work. The recommendations primarily draw from key lessons learned through the work of the Catholic School Advantage Campaign and bring national attention to some of our ongoing programs, including the Latino Enrollment Institute and the School Pastors’ Institute.

In addition to Fr. Corpora and Dr. Fraga’s essay, this special issue features contributions from a wide variety of educators at various institutions, each offering a unique perspective and its own distinctive voice. The themes include a Latina theological reflection on education, a historical discussion of Catholic education in Los Angeles, a self-reflective examination of a new principal in a Catholic school, a look at two-way language immersion in a Catholic school context, and an evidence-driven assessment of Latino presence in K-12 Catholic education, to name a few.

While the editors consider the variety of approaches and conclusions in this issue to be an “accurate reflection of the range of experiences and outlooks that surround debates and dialogues on Latinos, education, and the Church,” they also note that the authors are “clearly united in three important points”: (a) a vision of using the transformative possibilities within the Catholic Church and Catholic education to expand educational opportunities for Latino families; (b) the priority that leaders of the Catholic Church in the U.S. should give to expanding educational opportunities for Latino families; and (c) the need to continue to work strategically to leverage the resources necessary to improve the educational attainment of Latino students across the nation.

From its outset, the Catholic School Advantage Campaign has always sought to help catalyze a broader national effort to increase Latino enrollment in Catholic schools, so it is encouraging to see this coalescence of ideas, interests, and institutions across the country on this topic. We hope that these essays prompt greater discussion on the challenges and opportunities before us and inspire all educators, advocates, and mission partners to work together to develop fresh and imaginative ways to expand access to the transformative possibilities within Catholic schools.

Little Things Making a Big Impact at St. Andrew School

Written by Steve McClure on Thursday, 04 February 2016.

St. Andrew School SLC Img1It’s the little things that matter the most. While this common adage, or at least the sentiment within it, may call to mind the litany of quotes and proverbs that profess this idea in one variation or another, St. Andrew Catholic School in Riverton, Utah, is a remarkable testament to its truth.

Built in 2008, St. Andrew is the newest Catholic school in the Diocese of Salt Lake City, and while it operated at or just near capacity for a number of years, enrollment began to dip at an alarming rate in 2013. Enrollment had dropped by more than 35 percent over the previous 18 months. In July of 2014, new principal, Patrick Jefferies, arrived with a mandate and a plan to turn the school around.

Although Jefferies came to St. Andrew with a strong background in educational leadership and school improvement work, he didn’t necessarily set out to make sweeping changes. For the most part, he had inherited a school with a good foundation upon which to build. Academically, the school was relatively strong–though, there was still certainly room for improvement–and the majority of the faculty and staff were well-qualified and supported his vision for the school. “What the community needed was to feel a sense of ownership in the school, to know that they belong here at St. Andrew, and that we are committed to doing whatever it takes to make it possible for them to be here,” says Jefferies.

"What the community needed was to feel a sense of ownership in the school, to know that they belong here at St. Andrew, and that we are committed to doing whatever it takes to make it possible for them to be here."

Central to St. Andrew’s outreach efforts was rebuilding a sense of trust with Latino families, both within the parish and the wider community. Of the various measures they took, Jefferies still credits St. Andrew’s precipitous enrollment gains to one very simple practice –“I realized that I just needed to listen,” he says.” This was a bit of an ‘aha’ moment for me. Even though in most cases I knew what my answer was going to be to the family sitting across from me – ‘yes, you can come here’ – I committed to sitting down with parents and students to listen to their stories, understand where they were coming from, and acknowledge that their needs and desires were important.” It was through the simple acts of listening, being present to families, and instituting small changes that the school began to experience a turnaround.

By helping families to see that it was not only possible for them to attend St. Andrew, but that the school’s administration actually wanted them there, it fostered a greater sense of belonging and community. From then on, as the common Spanish phrase goes, la voz corre (word spread). “Once we began establishing and repairing relationships with members of our community, particularly with the school’s Latino families, recruitment more or less took care of itself.”

After Jefferies and his team had begun the work of transforming St. Andrew School, they had the opportunity to attend the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI)–a four-day conference providing school principals, administrators, and teachers with marketing strategies and school culture interventions to help them attract and serve Latino families more effectively–at the University of Notre Dame in the summer of 2015. “The LEI is something that we just kind of stumbled into,” says Jefferies. “When we showed up, we were both validated in knowing that many of the things we had been doing were already considered best practice, and we felt empowered to take all of those things to the next level.” One such example is the way in which they altered certain elements of the school’s physical environment.

One of the most basic practices recommended at the LEI is to include culturally responsive religious imagery in a highly visible location so that when prospective families visit the school for the first time, they immediately see something with which they can identify and that makes them feel at home. For many Latinos, particularly those of Mexican origin, nothing speaks more powerfully than the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. While a rather large image of la Virgen was already prominently displayed near the school entrance, Jefferies returned from the LEI and made sure that Our Lady of Guadalupe was in every single classroom in the building. This past December also marked the first time that the school held an official celebration for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Sr. Julie Kubasak, DC, the LEI mentor principal who has been working with St. Andrew School this year, had the opportunity to visit and witness this inaugural celebration. “A huge image of Our Lady was prominently displayed at the Mass, and we were each given roses to offer her, while students dressed as traditional matachines danced and served as lectors,” says Sr. Julie. “It was an absolutely beautiful celebration!”

Also playing an integral role in the positive changes taking place at St. Andrew School is the pastor, Fr. Marco Lopez. One of the biggest problems facing many Catholic schools today is the lack of cohesion between the parish and the school, often creating a disconnect between Latino families and the Catholic schools that are there to serve them. In the case of St. Andrew School, the connection with the parish couldn’t be any stronger, the most obvious reason being that the school currently is St. Andrew Church. No separate building exists at the moment to house the parish, so Masses are held right within the school gymnasium. But more than that, the strong connection between the parish and school has been a direct result of Fr. Marco’s advocacy for the school.

During the same summer that Mr. Jefferies attended the LEI, Fr. Marco attended ACE’s summer offering for pastors, the School Pastors’ Institute. A native of El Salvador and an English language learner himself, Fr. Marco understands the needs of many of the school’s Latino families and routinely speaks from the pulpit with authority and conviction about the value of a Catholic education. On any given day, Fr. Marco is likely to be found in the school hallways, visiting and sometimes teaching classes, or in his office, which is conveniently located right next to Mr. Jefferies. Because of this relationship, the parish and school have really come to be seen as the same entity with a common mission.

St. Andrew School SLC Patrick Jefferies in ClassroomPrincipal Jefferies reading to the kindergarten class at St. Andrew.While Jefferies found the validation they received at the LEI to be empowering, he notes that the other thing the program provided was an abundance of resources. “It just amazes me how a small school in backwater Utah, in a state where Catholics comprise just six percent of the population, can suddenly have access to a wealth of resources and be part of a nationwide network of schools and educators who share this common mission,” says Jefferies. In fact, upon returning to Salt Lake City, he was so eager to share what they had learned over the summer that he invited ACE’s English as a New Language team to present to over 100 teachers and administrators in the diocese on strategies and best practices for teaching English learners, which he hosted at St. Andrew School.

Since stepping into his leadership role at St. Andrew, Jefferies and his dedicated faculty and staff have grown the school’s enrollment by 37 percent, with Latino enrollment increasing nearly 50 percent. “If there’s one thing that I really took to heart at the LEI,” says Jefferies, “it’s that I needed to stop worrying about the money. If we focus on doing all of the little things right–welcoming all who want to be here and providing an exceptional education and faith formation for our children–then the rest will work itself out.” And indeed it has. This year, St. Andrew School is working with a $120,000 difference in its operating budget, simply because they were intentional about creating a rich, welcoming, and diverse school culture, took the time to listen to families, and built relationships in the community. Moreover, the school is on a long-term growth trajectory and Jefferies expects to once again be operating at capacity in just a few years’ time.

The evidence is clear that nothing transforms a school like a strong leader–an idea that has become somewhat of a mantra at the LEI–and St. Andrew School represents an ideal witness to the possible with regards to the vitality and growth that can result from doing the little things right.


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

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