"The principal is the single most important lever for change in any school." These words should be well-ingrained in the minds of some one hundred Catholic school educators, administrators, and pastors after attending the Latino Enrollment Institute at the University of Notre Dame, June 25-28, 2013. Fr. Joe Corpora, CSC, Director of University-School Partnerships at the Alliance for Catholic Education and leader of the Catholic School Advantage Campaign, emphatically repeated this phrase on multiple occasions so as to not understate the indispensable role of the principal in transforming our Catholic schools. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than with the eight exemplary principals that served as the Design Team of this year's Latino Enrollment Institute, all of whom have faced, at one time or another, the imminent closure of their respective schools.
Yvonne Schwab, Principal of St. James the Less Catholic School in Columbus, Ohio, has served as a mentor principal for the LEI since it began in the summer of 2012. Yvonne received the 2011 National Catholic Education Association Distinguished Principal Award and was named a Whitehouse Champion of Change that same year under President Obama's Winning the Future for America initiative. And while Yvonne is no stranger to national recognition, she and the faculty and staff of St. James the Less School continue to serve their students with the same humility and sense of mission that have made it a model of hospitality, diversity, and hope for Catholic schools.
One of her most noteworthy accomplishments, and that which is most pertinent to the Catholic School Advantage Campaign, is the surge of Latino enrollment under the nine years of her leadership. Prior to assuming her current role as principal, Yvonne served many years as the school's physical education teacher, witnessing successive years of declining enrollment. When she became principal, she worked closely with her parish administrator to develop a recruitment strategy, with special emphasis on reaching out to Latino and other ethnic minority populations in Columbus. Her efforts resulted in higher tests scores and a school enrollment that doubled, with the Latino enrollment growing from two students when she became principal, to 260 today.
While it has been under Yvonne's leadership that St. James the Less has been able to cultivate such a strong spirit of hospitality and inclusion alongside high-quality academics and faith formation, she will be the first to admit that every success that St. James the Less has seen is the result of a concerted team effort. "Really nothing here is done by me," she insists. "It is always a community," referring to her faculty and staff. "They deserve credit for their wholehearted embrace of professional development and I trust and rely on the people that I have hired." When Latinos first started attending St. James the Less, Yvonne and the teachers signed up for Spanish language and culture lessons. They also participated in a university course called "Transforming Urban Schools: Sharing Multiple Voices," sought counsel from a St. James parishioner with expertise in curriculum development, and as a book-study group discussed such works as Teaching with Poverty in Mind.
Yvonne and her faculty and staff have learned to be very intentional about creating their school culture, which she attributes in large part to their participation in the 2010 ACE Summer Forum on welcoming Latino children and families into Catholic schools. St. James the Less was well-represented as 13 of Yvonne's colleagues expressed interest and were able to attend the conference. Recognizing the major demographic shifts taking place in not only the nation, but in their community, Yvonne and her staff saw the ACE Summer Forum as an opportunity to consider new possibilities for celebrating diversity and making St. James the Less School a "second home" for all of its students, regardless of their background. The school now has imagery that resonates strongly with the Latino population, most notably with those of Mexican heritage, and Our Lady of Guadalupe is prominently displayed within the school. There is a celebration on her feast day and a play about St. Juan Diego, which is one example of an effort St. James has made to celebrate a story so deeply rooted in Latino spirituality.
Because family ties and relationships are so important in the Latino culture, she Yvonne and her team also built up a network of madrinas—literally, godmothers—who are well-connected, caring parents or grandparents, ready to "come and help with everything" requiring outreach with a personal touch. "Word of mouth" from supportive, influential madrinas and padrinos is also "the biggest draw for people" to a school, Yvonne adds. The value of this personal influence, for the children, the parents, and the whole school, was another lesson learned from the Notre Dame "Catholic School Advantage" campaign's summer conference on Latino enrollment.
Meetings for parents have been switched to Sunday afternoons because so many parents have job schedules precluding other times. The parish offers adult classes in English as a New Language, held on Sunday mornings for those attending Mass. Yvonne remembers speaking at Sunday Masses where her message, spelled out phonetically to improve her Spanish, dealt only partially with registration for school: "We will do our best to help you with whatever you need," she told the parishioners. "That's what our faith teaches us to do."
The Christian spirit of compassion and service to neighbor easily extends from the local to the global. "Service learning is a very, very big part of our school," says Yvonne. Every year, projects responding to disasters and special needs in the world are integrated in the curriculum for all grades. The student body has learned about international health crises, natural disasters, and extreme poverty, always pulling together to help address those problems with their own hands.
They do know they're a diverse bunch, but this gives them reason for joy, not fear. Yvonne speaks of one Caucasian eighth grader who recently said this when asked how she liked St. James the Less School: "We have so many different people and so many different cultures that I have learned so much about the world and life. I feel much enriched by this."
Enrichment of the students' daily lives includes strong, consistent academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests. The school has demonstrated yearly progress at every grade level.
Just as students have become better able to envision their own future, the culture of hospitality and hope in which Yvonne and her colleagues are immersed helps them to envision the future for Catholic education and for St. James the Less. "The future of many of our Catholic schools is Latino," says Yvonne.
St. James the Less' participation in the 2010 ACE Summer Forum, and Yvonne's continued partnership with the Catholic School Advantage Campain as a mentor principal in the LEI, have helped her to build upon the inherent strengths of her school while also better understanding—and leveraging—insights about the cultures of her students and fellow parishioners. "The Catholic School Advantage is so important for all children, and they should all have access to a quality, faith-filled education," says Yvonne. "But we feel that for our children, it is more than education. Here we can feed their spirit and create a place where they do not feel like an outsider, a place where truly all are welcome." Yvonne will continue to share the lessons she has learned as principal of St. James the Less as she helps a new group of principals throughout this coming school year in implementing some of the strategies that were discussed at the Latino Enrollment Institute in June.
She offers this advice to schools that are new in their outreach to our Latino brothers and sisters: "Don't let the language get in the way of your going out to them. People can read a welcoming environment," and such an environment is established as much by open attitudes and kind actions as it is by words. As Yvonne notes, she could not have done anything she did at St. James the Less without her incredibly devoted staff, but without her vision and leadership, the school most likely would have continued on the same path that many struggling Catholic schools have been on in recent years. The story of St. James the Less School is a true testament to Fr. Joe Corpora's statement that the principal is the single most important lever for change in any school.