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Madrinas Serve as Bridge for Latino Families: Boost Enrollment at Corpus Christi - Holy Rosary School

Written by Steve McClure on Thursday, 17 October 2013.

CCHR MadrinasAbout 30 miles north of Midtown Manhattan in the working-class village of Port Chester, New York, Corpus Christi-Holy Rosary School has a long history of educating the children of immigrant families. Like many other U.S. cities that were at one time destinations for European immigrants during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Port Chester finds itself undergoing a dramatic transformation due to a recent wave of immigrants from Latin America. Today, 59 percent of the town's residents are of Hispanic origin, contributing to a population increase of 17 percent in the past 20 years - twice as fast as Westchester County as a whole. This immigrant influx, described by Port Chester's director of planning and development, Christopher Gomez, as the "lifeblood" of the town, has brought new life to a city that fell on hard times in recent decades. For the principal of Corpus Christi-Holy Rosary, Sister Lou Ann Fantauzza, a Salesian Sister, this has been especially true as she has seen consecutive years of enrollment increases and a school culture that has been further enriched by the presence of the school's Hispanic students and their families.

Rooted in the Salesian tradition of St. John Bosco, Corpus Christi-Holy Rosary School has provided academic and spiritual formation to the children of immigrant families for over 65 years in an environment of faith, optimism, and family spirit. Similar to many other communities throughout the country, however, shifting demographics have presented entirely new cultural realities that have come with their own set of opportunities and challenges. One of the biggest and most prevalent of these challenges is the inefficacy of traditional recruitment and marketing strategies within the rapidly growing Latino population. Corpus Christi Holy Rosary School has responded to this challenge with faith, tenacity, and creativity, embracing the town's Latino community through the efforts of the school's madrinas. 

 The Notre Dame Task Force that studied the participation of Latino children and families in Catholic schools found that schools that extend personal, one-on-one invitations to Latino families have more success than those that extend blanket invitations. This statement is evidenced clearly in CCHR's recent enrollment success through the Madrinas initiative. Corpus Christi-Holy Rosary is one of 28 CSA partner schools in the Archdiocese of New York receiving need-based scholarships for newly enrolled Latino students who have been referred to the school by a madrina. These madrinas, literally meaning "godmothers," serve an indispensable role in connecting the school to Latinos in the surrounding community, informing families about the benefits and accessibility of a Catholic education, as well as mentoring new families through their transition to Catholic schooling.

This past school year 22 new families enrolled at CCHR through the madrinas program, which Sr. Lou Ann says "would not have been possible without the exceptional group of women who have volunteered their time in service to the school." Judi DeSouter, the school's Director of Development and Student Recruitment further notes that such an exceptional team does not come together without clear vision and intentionality when selecting the madrinas. "Sr. Lou Ann has identified outstanding parents who are proactive, creative thinkers, and have gone out into the community and really hit the ground running," says Ms. DeSouter, "They truly are part of the internal workings of the school and have a sense of ownership. They devise new ideas because they are in the community, amongst the parents, and constantly identify new and changing opportunities."

The madrinas, Silvia Sical, Milena Carvalho and Nadeya DeDiago work to thoughtfully craft plans and efforts that meet the needs and expectations of Latino families. "It's such a productive collaboration," says Ms. DeSouter. "Our madrinas are incredibly personable, can make meaningful conversation easily, and they have generated so much interest in our school.

CCHR StudentAmong the madrinas at CCHR, there is one in particular whose dedication and hard work have established her as an outstanding leader. "The three madrinas work incredibly well together and take the job very seriously. And Nadeya is definitely the trailblazer within our group. She is a class act – a true treasure who inspires and coaches others," says Sr. Lou Ann. On many a Sunday, Ms. DeSouter meets with Mrs. DeDiago to discuss any news on the recruitment front and any opportunities or challenges the team is facing. Ms. DeSouter noted, "When I first saw Nadeya interact with prospective families, I thought she had a background in sales because she is so successful in connecting with parents. I don't think I have ever seen a parent walk away saying, "no thanks." Because of the strength of the CCHR madrinas, the school had a waiting list of 35 kids for enrollment this year.

Although Sr. Lou Ann and Ms. DeSouter are blessed with an outstanding group of madrinas, the support of the archdiocese and its partnership with ACE's Catholic School Advantage campaign have been instrumental in the success of this program as well. Thanks to generous donor support and the fundraising efforts of Dr. Timothy McNiff, Superintendent of Schools in the Archdiocese of New York, Madrinas scholarships were available to over 400 new students throughout the archdiocese this past year. In addition, Rudy Vargas IV, CSA field consultant in New York, has been working on the ground with schools throughout the archdiocese to help establish Madrinas programs. Ms. DeSouter notes that "without Rudy's leadership, guidance, training, and continued partnership, this effort would not be nearly as successful as it is now." Although little training and professional development has been needed for the madrinas at CCHR, Rudy has always been available to help resolve issues, aid in initial training, get others involved, and give counsel to develop culturally appropriate messaging for advertisements and marketing materials.

In addition to adopting more culturally responsive recruiting techniques, CCHR School has created an environment in which students of all cultures can feel at home, with special emphasis these days on embracing the various cultures of the school's Latino population. Sr. Lou Ann notes, "Our community has a deep appreciation for and understanding of the immigrant reality. We're open to the suggestions of our madrinas that everything be a family event." Ms. DeSouter goes on to say, "as a Salesian school, we aim to be home, school, church, and playground. It's a very faith and joy-filled setting in which the opportunities to include the children's culture and include their families are many." Whether it be the Hispanic religious iconography in the hallways, celebrations honoring saints revered in the Latino community, or welcoming children who may not speak English proficiently just yet, Corpus Christi-Holy Rosary has embraced Port Chester's changing demographics and been tremendously successful. Through the tireless efforts of the school's leadership, the dedication of their madrinas, and the committed families who contribute to and entrust their children's formation to the school, Corpus Christi-Holy Rosary has truly become a beacon of hope to families in the village of Port Chester.

St. James the Less Catholic School

on Thursday, 01 August 2013.

St. James the Less"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.

St. Leonard Catholic School

on Monday, 25 March 2013.

Having grown up in and graduated from Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago, Maureen Wilson has been a lifelong advocate of these uniquely effective and transformative educational institutions. She furthered her commitment to Catholic education when she became principal of St. Leonard School in Berwyn, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. Although she had held other teaching and administrative positions in Catholic schools over the years, this was her first time as principal, which can be a daunting task when walking into a school that has seen annual enrollment decreases for several consecutive years. "When I became principal of St. Leonard," says Maureen, "for one reason or another, the school had lost over 40 students from the previous year." Rather than feel discouraged by this, Maureen jumped to action, realizing that the school would realistically need a few building years, but found encouragement in the fact that "the families at St. Leonard sincerely cared about their school." Maureen immediately contacted Ryan Blackburn, the Marketing Director for the Office of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago, who in turn put her in contact with Juana Sanchez-Graber, field consultant for the University of Notre Dame's Catholic School Advantage Campaign in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Per Juana and Ryan's suggestion, Maureen assembled a marketing team to focus specifically on Latino recruitment and enrollment. "We listened to and implemented all of their ideas; from establishing a Parent Ambassador program, employing Spanish-speaking staff, and creating all marketing materials in both English and Spanish, to generating more scholarships and making financial aid more accessible to all families who need it," says Maureen. In addition, she and her staff have made a concerted effort to make their school more visible in both the parish and in the Berwyn community. This past Christmas, the students put on a production of Las Posadas for the church community – the Hispanic tradition celebrating the nine months that Mary carried Jesus in her womb and reenacting their search for a place to stay. It received a very positive response. Additionally, the students of St. Leonard will participate in a Latin American Parade of Nations this spring in which the Berwyn Police Department will accompany them on floats as they parade around town. While their outreach to the Latino community has paid off significantly, seeing a Latino enrollment boost of 50 students this past year, Maureen notes that, "this mission has been about so much more than increasing our enrollment numbers at our school; it has made us all more cognizant of the beautiful culture within our community, and we have embraced the changes that reflect the future of our school and our nation."

When asked what the single best piece of advice she could offer to other schools facing similar challenges would be, Maureen said, "BE VISIBLE in the community! I wear my St. Leonard shirt everywhere I go. I recruited a family while at the laundromat waiting for my clothes to dry!" She also notes how important it is to get to know not only the students in your school, but their families as well. "The best advertising is word-of-mouth," says Maureen. "When we promote and deliver the three pillars on which St. Leonard School prides itself – faith, family, and academic excellence – word inevitably spreads and more and more families seek to enroll their children here." The enrollment surge over the past year has been a true testament to this as St. Leonard's total enrollment increased by 41 students, their first increase since 2007.

A Principal's Return to Her Roots while Embracing Change

on Monday, 18 February 2013.

Mexican Dancers St

In 2006, Marianne White was appointed principal of St. Mary's Catholic School in Boise, Idaho. A native of Boise, as well as an alumna of St. Mary's, Marianne was excited about returning to her roots after many years living in the eastern United States. "When I returned to St. Mary's School," says Marianne, "I found it looked much like the same school I had attended as a child." MarianneWhiteThere was very little cultural diversity in the school, with only about five percent of the total enrollment being ethnic minorities. Furthermore, of that five percent most were children who had been adopted from other countries. At the same time, there was a rapidly growing Latino population in the parish, yet only two Latino families were enrolled at St. Mary's School. "I found this curious since the parish demographics had changed so dramatically," says Marianne. Seeing so many devoted Catholic families with young children who were not enrolled at the school, she couldn't help but wonder why. Rather than wait for new families to inquire about the school, Marianne resolved to embrace her role as principal and make known the option and affordability of a St. Mary's education to Latino parishioners and members of the community.

Sacred Heart Catholic School, Oklahoma City

on Monday, 28 January 2013.

IMG 0944 3At Sacred Heart Catholic School in Oklahoma City, Principal Joana Camacho has seen tremendous success in boosting enrollment since making a concerted effort to reach out to the Latino community. After attending the ACE Summer Forum on Recruiting Latino Children to Catholic Schools in 2010, she returned to Sacred Heart Parish eager to get to work and enlisted the help of the clergy to generate interest in the parish school. The following is her account of some of the successes along the way.

In 2010, we had three new priests and a very dynamic pastor. In one weekend, I spoke at all nine masses at Sacred Heart Parish (two in English and seven in Spanish). It was a wonderful experience. The pastor and the two associates gave a short homily and then I got up to do my "speech". After I spoke, the priests shared a positive and inspiring endorsement of the school. In fact, it almost made me want to have more kids so that they could attend Sacred Heart! The results from that initial effort to spread the word about our school have been amazing. People started coming to the school that Monday, quoting some of the things the priests and I had said, and most importantly, wanting to enroll their children. The week before, we had had 124 students enrolled and not a single inquiry. By Thursday that week, I was at the school until 8:15 P.M. enrolling students. By Tuesday the following week, we were up to 149 students! 20 of the 25 are a direct result of the weekend push for enrollment, but more continue to come and inquire, completing financial assistance applications. After our initial enrollment surge, we adjusted our goal for the start of the school year from 140 to 155+. We ended up starting the school year with 174 students! And what a celebration we had.

Our pastor, Fr. Roberto Quant, participates in doing tours with me to prospective families, and we work together as a team quite well. People certainly love the personal touch of his time. All three priests are extremely supportive of the school in both words and action. I cannot overstate how tremendous a difference this has made!

As far as finances go, we believe that a student paying 50 or 60 percent of the cost of tuition is better than an empty seat. We also offer the Sacred Heart parishioner rate to other parishes without schools. They too can apply for tuition assistance. One mother became very emotional after finding out that she would be able to afford to send her children to Sacred Heart School with the financial assistance offered. She was so proud, happy, and relieved that her three children would be attending an excellent Catholic school!

When we first took on this initiative, it really gave our school new life. I have fallen in love with my ministry at SHCS all over again, and it is such a wonderful feeling. Although the following year we saw a drop in enrollment, our belief in this mission was not shaken and we continued our efforts. Most importantly, we continued to provide an excellent education for our children in a safe, orderly, and nurturing environment.

Our efforts paid off as we began the following and current school year with 191 students – an increase of 40 students. This is the largest enrollment we have had in my ten years at Sacred Heart. An essential key to our recent success has been our ability to utilize word-of-mouth advertising as a marketing tool. Current families have started asking about enrollment for the 2013-2014 school year, wanting to be sure their children and younger siblings get in, and we have many new families inquiring. I have started a list of new families who want to enroll for next year when open enrollment begins February 1st.

We have also increased our class size to a maximum of 22 to meet the demand for enrollment, with one class at 23. Our maximum enrollment is 212, which we continue to strive for; but it is encouraging to see that which I have been praying for come to fruition.

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