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A Vibrant Celebration Leads to an Important Revelation

Written by Manny Fernandez on Monday, 08 May 2017.

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John Staud, Executive Director for the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame, likes to tell a story about the moment he knew that a great number of Latinos could be found anywhere in the Unites States, and that they would be the future of the Catholic Church. About a decade ago, he was at a rest stop in Lima, Ohio. Lima is a small, old German farming town in the middle of rural Ohio. At this rest stop, to John’s astonishment, were signs in both English and Spanish. It was his “aha” moment, and ACE would never be the same.

Fast forward to the present, and the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) is now in its sixth year. Having served almost 200 schools from 41 states, the LEI has proven there is a need to focus on Latino enrollment in Catholic schools not only in states like California, Texas, and Florida, but throughout the entire nation.

Divine Intervention and a Principal's Passion Save School

Written by Steve McClure on Friday, 18 November 2016.


Twelve years ago, it took a miracle to keep the doors of Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary School in East Harlem open. But the school’s providential reprieve from its impending closure was far from the end of the journey. Granted a second chance, Principal Suzanne Kaszynski, at the time in only her second year at the helm, realized that she and her staff would need to radically transform Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary School from the inside out.

Recognizing that what her classrooms lacked was joy, she decided to incorporate a passion of her own into the school and to build programs around it. By establishing a culture of success, implementing a whole host of extra-curricular activities, reaching out to the surrounding Latino community, and with the help of the Partnership for Inner City Education, Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary started to gain much greater visibility both within New York City and beyond.

Today, Suzanne serves as a mentor principal for the Latino Enrollment Institute, helping other Catholic school leaders find their niche and transform the culture of their schools. Watch her whole story below.


Speaking to the Heart of What Parents Want for their Children

Written by Steve McClure on Thursday, 01 September 2016.

Know your audience. This age-old wisdom for public speaking is something we’ve all probably heard at one point or another. It often serves as a guiding principle for any successful marketing campaign and similarly has profound implications for developing an effective Latino recruitment strategy.

When Joana Camacho became principal of Sacred Heart Catholic School in Oklahoma City, she inherited a school that had just experienced a significant drop in enrollment, with no signs of that turning around any time soon. At the same time, the weekend Masses at Sacred Heart Parish were extremely well attended, in large part by Latino families with young children. Despite her efforts to reach out to this population, through a combination of open houses, traditional advertising techniques, and even speaking at some of the Spanish Masses, it wasn’t until she began to understand what Latino parents really wanted for their children that she was able to convey the most effective message.

Watch the whole story here...

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.

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.


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