It’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.
Principal 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.