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From LEI to Demo Day: St. Stephen School Breaks Down Walls to Welcome Latino Students

Written by Manny Fernandez on Thursday, 04 February 2016.

St. Stephen School Glenwood Springs, COWhen Glenda Oliver, principal of St. Stephen Catholic School in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, returned from a trip to the University of Notre Dame last summer, she knew she needed to tear down some intrusive walls, both figuratively and literally. Glenda was at Notre Dame to attend ACE’s Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI), an initiative that identifies and assists Catholic schools by teaching principals and select faculty leaders how to transform their schools to attract and serve Latino students more effectively.

One of the most important things Glenda learned at the LEI was that she and her staff needed to build relationships with Latino families, and she realized that her school, the way it was constructed, was not conducive to that. “We needed to make our reception area more welcoming and warm,” says Oliver. We wanted our Latino families, and all of our families, to feel welcome here at St. Stephen the minute they walk through those doors.” So Glenda decided to remove the walls in the reception area to make it more inviting. They then gave it a fresh coat of paint, added a crucifix, and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a symbol of hope and faith for Latino Catholics. The results were immediate. Parents noticed the change and have commented on how much more open, bright, and inviting the room is, and the area has become a symbol of how St. Stephen is not just a school, but a large family.

"We needed to make our reception area more welcoming and warm. We wanted our Latino families, and all of our families, to feel welcome here at St. Stephen the minute they walk through those doors."

The reception area was only the beginning for Glenda and her team. Spurred on by what she learned at the LEI, along with one of her strongest advocates, the pastor, Fr. Bert Chilson, whom she describes as “a gift” to the school community, Glenda continued in her quest to fill the empty seats in her classroom by reaching out to the Latino community even more than she had before. A self-professed “borderline introvert”, Glenda shook off her nerves and began attending the Spanish Masses at her parish. Despite her limited proficiency, she delivered a message in Spanish about the value of a Catholic education, and that St. Stephen School could make that opportunity a reality. “I am not bilingual, but I wrote out a short script in Spanish and read it to the Latino parishioners,” says Oliver. “I did this at multiple masses, and at first, nobody knew who I was. But I was persistent, and after a few months, they not only knew who I was, but they were even giving me their babies to hold!”

Glenda also quickly implemented a madrinas/padrinos program. That select group of mothers and fathers has been instrumental in getting the word out to the Latino families in the wider community about the quality of whole-child education at St. Stephen Catholic School. Glenda says St. Stephen’s is already reaping the benefits of that program through the outstanding work of those mothers and fathers; she expects the madrinas/padrinos program to grow stronger and help them even more in the future.

Aside from all the hard work Glenda and her team put in, she also had a bit of divine intervention. Early this school year, Glenda’s business manager, Chris, told Glenda that they were about $25,000 short in their budget. She and Glenda both immediately turned to prayer, and the next time Glenda approached Chris, there was a parishioner there who said he would like to donate $25,000 to the school -- the exact amount they needed.

Later that winter, an alumnus of Catholic schools, who owned a tree farm, wanted to help the school in any way possible. He donated over 600 Christmas trees to the school. Laughing when she recalled that initial conversation with the donor, who wished to remain anonymous, she says “When he first called, I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do with all these trees, plant them?’” However, she and Fr. Bert opted to try and sell the trees, and they turned this incredible gift of Christmas trees into over $11,000 for the school. Perhaps more importantly, it became a wonderful opportunity for the school community to come together. Families of all ethnicities came out in full force to not only buy trees, but to volunteer to sell the trees. “By the time we ran out of trees,” says Oliver, “I had families practically begging me to allow them to volunteer. We were having so much fun!” The Christmas tree sale was such a hit that it even made the local news

The money from the tree sale went towards the St. Stephen’s capital campaign to build a new school. They need to raise $3 million to begin construction on the new building, and they are currently at $2.5 million. Glenda also hopes to raise her enrollment at the elementary school so much that they can begin to build the first Catholic high school in Glenwood Springs.

Before Glenda and her team attended the LEI in June of 2015, the Latino population at St. Stephen’s was 31 students, accounting for 13 percent of the school’s total enrollment. In the three short months following their return from Notre Dame, with the intentional recruiting efforts of Glenda, Father Bert, and the entire St. Stephen faculty and staff, the Latino population has risen sharply to 55 students, now making up 29 percent of the school’s population. That represents a 77 percent increase in Latino enrollment, a remarkable number considering the short amount of time that St. Stephen had been actively and intentionally recruiting Latino students.

Despite their efforts so far, St. Stephen School is just getting started. Glenda is excited about the future, the potential for even more students, and the wonderful diversity of the school. She is really looking forward to beginning construction of their new, expanded facility, which, in this case, are walls that she will gladly build.

Interested in learning more about the Latino Enrollment Institute? Visit the LEI page to start your application or nominate a principal!

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