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In First Year at the LEI, Arkansas Catholic Schools Off to a Strong Start

Written by Steve McClure on Wednesday, 01 February 2017.

LittleRock ImmaculateConception 5As the geographic footprint of the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) expands, many Catholic schools in never-before-represented dioceses now serve as models of transformation and growth with regards to Latino outreach. The three Catholic schools from the Diocese of Little Rock that attended the LEI in the summer of 2016 are one such example. St. Theresa, Immaculate Conception, and St. Vincent de Paul Schools in Little Rock, Fort Smith, and Rogers, Arkansas, respectively, were the first to represent their diocese at the LEI and all experienced notable increases in both overall and Latino enrollment in a relatively short time.

The state of Arkansas, although it falls outside of even the top half of U.S. states in Latino population as a percentage of total state population, is a seemingly ideal environment for the recruitment of Latino families to Catholic schools as it ranks sixth in Latino population growth between 2000 and 2014. The three Diocese of Little Rock schools that attended the LEI last summer validated this assumption by welcoming nearly 100 new Latino students – a 50 percent increase – across the three schools by the start of the academic year.

To see such an impact in enrollment so shortly after attending the LEI, especially in three schools from a previously unrepresented diocese, is actually quite rare. And whether it be attributed to demographics, the school leaders themselves, or the LEI – all of which undoubtedly had a hand in this recent growth – they also serve as a testament to one simple lesson that we’ve seen time and time again in LEI schools across the country: It’s all about relationships. 


St. Theresa School | Little Rock, Arkansas

LittleRock St.Theresa 4At the close of the LEI summer conference, the team from St. Theresa School in Little Rock made it no further than the airport before plotting their next steps in implementing all that they had learned when they returned home. And for Kristy Dunn, principal of St. Theresa School, having the continued support of an LEI mentor principal throughout this process made a tremendous difference. Although in only her second year as the school’s leader, Kristy is no stranger to the St. Theresa community. She attended the school in her youth, as well as spent the 11 years prior teaching there, and when she was paired with her LEI mentor principal, Marianne Pelletier, she felt that it was providential. Marianne came from a similar background, having returned to the school of her youth in Boise, Idaho, to become its principal many years later.

“To be able to speak with someone from a completely different part of the country who is working towards the same mission, dealing with similar issues, and sharing their own successes and failures has been incredibly helpful,” says Kristy. “You can’t put a price tag on that.”

Since the LEI began, the role of the mentor principal has really been at the heart of the initiative’s success. The mentor principal establishes a working relationship with the schools that they oversee through regular phone calls, email communication, and an actual visit to the school to offer onsite consultation and feedback.

“To be able to speak with someone from a different part of the country who is working towards the same mission, dealing with similar issues, and sharing their own successes and failures has been incredibly helpful.”

“The whole structure of the LEI is what has allowed our school to succeed,” says Kristy. “The summer conference kick-started the process, which is where most professional development ends. But we left with a concrete action plan, and then had our mentor principal to walk this journey with us.”

LittleRock St.Theresa 1Upon returning to St. Theresa, the first thing Kristy did was meet with her entire staff to make sure everyone was on board with the mission that the school was working to fulfill. From there, she made seemingly small changes that required minimal financial investment, such as adding bilingual signage and merging her two PTOs – which had previously been separate due to language differences – into one bilingual PTO to bring the two communities together. Kristy also met with the pastor and the associate pastor of St. Theresa Parish and together they spoke at all of the masses – three in Spanish and three in English – in an effort to welcome new families that maybe had not considered a Catholic education before. The school also made an effort to become more visible in the wider parish community this year as they hosted one of the nights during Las Posadas and celebrated a mass on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the first time.

Although many of these changes were seemingly small, they have had a tremendous impact. They were all made on the basis of building community and establishing personal relationships. And St. Theresa’s efforts have quickly paid off as the school saw an impressive 75-percent increase in Latino families over the previous year.  


Immaculate Conception School | Fort Smith, Arkansas

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About 150 miles away from St. Theresa School, Sharon Blentlinger, has been busy at work implementing her own Latino outreach plan at Immaculate Conception School in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Similar to Kristy Dunn, Sharon has a lifelong connection to the school that she now leads. She once roamed the halls of Immaculate Conception as a student and has now served as its principal for 30 years, the longest tenure of any Catholic school principal in the state.

In 2013, Immaculate Conception was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, the first Catholic school and first Fort Smith elementary school in Arkansas to receive the honor. Despite the school’s reputation for strong academics, however, enrollment was not at the level that Sharon knew it could be.

“What we’re really trying to establish with our Latino parents are personal relationships. Once we do that, word gets around and our parents become our greatest recruiters."

“By attending the LEI,” says Sharon, “we were really able to formalize a lot of the things that we had been doing over the past ten years. It has encouraged us to be much more intentional in our outreach to Latino families in the area.”

For several years, Sharon had periodically met with her school’s Latino families, but she now makes it a priority to do so on a monthly basis. She has also made an effort to not only be present at multicultural events in the parish community, but to use these events as an opportunity to recruit and get to know families who do not have their children at Immaculate Conception. “What we’re really trying to establish with our Latino parents are personal relationships,” says Sharon. “Once we do that, word gets around and our parents become our greatest recruiters.”

Word of mouth is consistently reported as one of the most effective methods of recruitment and when harnessed properly can have an even greater impact. 

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After attending the LEI, Sharon started to build a madrinas program, which is a grassroots form of marketing and recruitment that utilizes personal connections and community leaders to identify and bring in new families. “If we can get an interested family in the door,” says Sharon, “they almost always enroll here at Immaculate Conception. I personally give one-on-one tours to every prospective family, and although they take a lot of time, it really pays off. Parents get a sense of acceptance here at the school, and they also see how diverse our community is.”

By employing this approach to building relationships and adding that personal touch to recruitment and marketing, Immaculate Conception School has seen its enrollment grow to over 300 students after diminishing for several years. In just the past year alone, their Latino enrollment has grown by 40 percent, and total enrollment by nearly 25 percent.


St. Vincent de Paul School | Rogers, Arkansas

Another 80 miles up the road from Immaculate Conception is St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Rogers, Arkansas. The town is directly adjacent to the Walmart world headquarters, one of the largest multinational retail corporations, so St. Vincent de Paul School is “somewhat of a melting pot,” says the school’s principal, Karla Thielemier. "Because of our proximity to Walmart’s headquarters, people come from all over, so we have many languages spoken here in our school.” In fact, Karla herself, unlike Kristy and Sharon, is not native to Rogers, or even to the state of Arkansas. She admits that this has, at times, been to her benefit as she leads a changing community.

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Changing demographics can be a difficult thing for any well-established community with a long and rich history to accept. With it comes a new way of doing things, and it often helps when the leader of that community is not one of its original members. Karla notes that the St. Vincent de Paul parish community looks very different than it did not too long ago. “Our parish is now between 65 and 70 percent Latino, but this population just hasn’t been as well represented in our school community. This is something I set out to change after attending the LEI.”

One of the first things that Karla did upon returning from the LEI was hire Latino members of the school community to fill some of her staff vacancies. For example, the new director of the cafeteria is Latina, which she feels has made so many new Latino families feel at home when they visit the school.

“In general, people need to know that you love their child. And when I receive any child at St. Vincent de Paul, I look at him or her as my own.”

Also relatively new to the team is the school’s Hispanic Liaison, Mariztella Salinas, who attended the LEI summer conference with Karla. “She has been an indispensable part of our community as both a translator and a madrina,” says Karla. “Once I understood the relational aspect of the Latino culture and how to recruit Latino families, Mariztella and I went out to different organizations in the parish to recruit new families.”

St. Vincent de Paul School also boasts strong academics, as it was a recipient of the 2015 National Blue Ribbon High Performing Exemplary School award from the Council for American Private Education and the U.S. Department of Education. 

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But Karla attributes the school’s recent enrollment growth to one thing in particular: “In general, people need to know that you love their child. And when I receive any child at St. Vincent de Paul, I look at him or her as my own.”

This family-like atmosphere, which attempts to bridge the cultural divide between a historically anglo parish/school community and a growing diverse population, has been key to St. Vincent de Paul’s success. Today the school is nearly at capacity, having increased their Latino enrollment by 30 percent in the past year, and the total enrollment by 23 percent.

"People often think that money is the main barrier that prevents Hispanic families from enrolling in Catholic schools,” says Karla. “We have not found that to be the case here at all. It’s really a question of gaining their trust. After we became more intentional about doing this, it really paid off.”

These three Arkansas schools serve as a powerful example of how small changes and an emphasis on building relationships can have a significant impact in enrollment and enrich the life of the school. The LEI team looks forward to watching each school’s progress as they appear to be firmly on an upward trajectory.


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