Sister Mary Willette is an expert at creating a welcoming school environment for Latino families. She did that--with great success--for nearly a decade as principal of the former San Miguel Middle School in Minneapolis.
Well before becoming principal, the School Sister of Notre Dame believed strongly in responding to urgent needs. But the belief took on a particular shape while she was studying to become a licensed administrator. "After I finished my studies," Sr. Mary says, "I had a deep desire to be in ministry with economically challenged families and students who struggle academically."
The desire led her to San Miguel, where her focus became the school's many Latino immigrant families. There she saw that "serving the immigrant population is one of those [urgent] needs," she says.
Sr. Mary developed many strategies for welcoming and enfolding Latino families into the school. Among them, she actively involved parents and guardians in their child/ren's education, offering conferences four times a year (with nearly 100% participation!) and meetings on topics pertinent to raising middle school children. Sr. Mary also trained her teachers in culturally responsive techniques and strategies for teaching second language learners.
Along the way, she learned many important lessons: "Integrate Latino values and history into the curriculum and the school environment rather than just celebrating specific events," she says. "Educate benefactors, volunteers, families and students, teachers and staff regarding the value of including Latinos in the school; encourage them to get involved with comprehensive immigration reform."
Such strategies and lessons worked well for the students at San Miguel, closing the achievement gap and sending them well-prepared to high school. Though the school shut its doors in June 2011 due to insufficient funds, its influence—and that of Sr. Mary—lives on. According to a farewell letter from the school's leaders:
"Our alumni provide the most tangible evidence of the fulfillment of our mission. Over 92% of students who graduated in the past four years from San Miguel are still in high school and progressing toward graduation. Many graduates are the first in their families to complete high school in the United States. San Miguel students and graduates represent a vital bridge, connecting their families to the realization of the American dream."
We congratulate Sr. Mary Willette for the integral role she has played in the lives of her students. And we pray God's richest blessings on her in her new role as coordinator of the School Sisters of Notre Dame Generalate House and Local Community in Rome, Italy.