St. Philip Neri Catholic School, located in the 44-square-block area just east of downtown Indianapolis known as the Near Eastside, is part of the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies, a consortium of schools committed to closing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students in urban areas of Indianapolis. In a neighborhood that is notorious for high rates of crime and poverty, St. Philip Neri School stands as a sign of hope for the children and community that it serves.
While Indianapolis may not be home to the largest or fastest growing Latino population in the country, St. Philip Neri School reflects quite a different reality. In the past decade, the school has undergone a remarkable demographic shift, experiencing an increase in Latino enrollment from 13% in 2003 to 99% today. With nearly 100 percent Latino enrollment, it is one example of the many extraordinary urban Catholic schools that have found new life in serving the Latino community.
The transformation of St. Philip Neri School into a thriving institution to which a great number of Latino families entrust their children's intellectual and spiritual formation could not have been achieved without the tireless efforts of the school's leadership - former principal, Mary McCoy and current principal, Gary Asher. Both graduates of the ACE Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame, Mrs. McCoy and Mr. Asher are well equipped as educational and spiritual leaders and possess the strategies needed to foster successful school community. Mary served as principal of St. Philip Neri for seven years, until this past July when she accepted a position as Assistant Superintendent of Instruction for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Although truly effective and transformative school leadership is not easy to replace, St. Philip Neri School could not be in better hands as Gary Asher, after having served five years as assistant principal alongside Mrs. McCoy, has assumed the role of principal.
When Mrs. McCoy first came to St. Philip Neri in 2006, there were 151 students enrolled in the school with 83% Latino. Having stepped into the role in the middle of a demographic shift that was clearly well underway, Mrs. McCoy refuses to take much credit for the influx of Latino students to the school. However, with a respective 52% and 31% passing rate in language arts and math on the ISTEP, as well as years of high faculty turnover, much work needed to be done in order to effectively serve this new population.
Mrs. McCoy had to hire several new teachers in her first year on the job, but took a very intentional approach to transforming the school environment, creating a welcoming community, and also setting high expectations for academics, attendance, and discipline. Since her first year as principal, St. Philip Neri has seen a significant increase in ISTEP scores – 75% passing in language arts and 72% in math – as well as successive years of enrollment increases. The most recent school year finished with 209 students and 99% Latino, and 220 are already registered for this upcoming year.
While St. Philip Neri reflects many of the best practices identified by the Notre Dame Task Force on the Participation of Latino Children and Families in Catholic Schools, Mrs. McCoy and Mr. Asher both agree that the factors that have contributed most to their successful recruitment and retention of Latino families have been the natural social networks existing within the Latino community, and a school environment with which Latino families can immediately identify.
When a family walks into the front office of St. Philip Neri School, they are greeted by Maria Lomeli at the front desk, the school's administrative assistant. Maria began working at St. Philip Neri in 2004, which Mrs. McCoy notes is probably one of the main reasons why the Latino enrollment grew so quickly. Maria is originally from Tala, a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is where many of the school's families are from, many of whom are first-generation immigrants. "Having Maria at our front desk eliminates any language barriers that could potentially exist for our current and prospective families and her influence within the Latino community cannot be overemphasized," says Mrs. McCoy. In addition to Maria, several other members of the St. Philip Neri School staff are from Tala, forging an even stronger sense of community amongst the staff, students, and parents. Mr. Asher also mentions that the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the front entrance of the school is "an immediate message to Hispanic families that they belong here." While the use of this widely recognized symbol of Latino Catholicism and a bilingual staff member in the front office are just two simple examples of a culturally responsive school environment, their presence speaks volumes.
When asked what recruitment and marketing strategies they employ, both Mrs. McCoy and Mr. Asher said that retention has been their main focus, not recruitment. "If we can retain our students, our recruitment issue is solved," says Mrs. McCoy. "The word is out about St. Philip Neri School." While no Catholic school is exempt from at least some form of outreach to maintain enrollment, the existing social networks in the community surrounding St. Philip Neri have left very little of the recruitment and marketing to Mrs. McCoy and her staff. "Word spreads quickly in the community about our school. Parents know that if they want their children in pre-K, they have to register in January,"she says.
With their focus on student retention and providing the best educational experience possible, Mrs. McCoy and Mr. Asher identified cultural awareness as a primary concerns regarding the commitment of teaching in a school with nearly 100% Latino enrollment. Thus professional development for teachers and staff addressing cultural awareness would be essential. Some of the ideas that they implemented were bringing in a panel of Latino parents from which the faculty could learn about the culture, expectations, and desires parents had for their children, training from a state-level professional on culturally responsive teaching methods, and even ideas as simple as emphasizing from the very beginning of the interview process that being a teacher at St. Philip Neri School means being an ENL teacher. Furthermore, as part of the Remick Leadership Program, Mary conducted an action research project on school culture at St. Philip Neri, consisting of a pre- and post-survey of 18 faculty and staff members to both gauge the knowledge, attitude, feelings, mindset, and needs of teachers working in an urban school with a large Hispanic enrollment, and to determine the impact of professional development programs focusing on Hispanic culture. The findings of the study showed that participation in cultural awareness workshops had a very positive influence on staff and teachers, and as a result, these workshops have become routine at St. Philip Neri School.
While there are a few changes in store for this upcoming school year - particularly that of leadership - St. Philip Neri School will certainly continue to thrive. Mr. Asher has been instrumental in making St. Philip Neri a place of intellectual and spiritual growth that countless Latino families in the Near Eastside call home. And although it's not easy to leave a place she has grown to love so much, Mrs. McCoy won't be far away and will continue to serve Indianapolis Catholic schools with the Archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education. The dramatic transformation of both culture and student achievement under the direction of Mrs. McCoy and Mr. Asher at St. Philip Neri School is a true testament to the possibilities that arise when committed and capable Catholic school leaders embrace the changing community around them and provide for the fullest experience of the Catholic school advantage.