“It’s all about relationships”: Lessons from a Two-Time LEI Participant
As students gathered last fall to register for classes at Bishop Ready High School in Columbus, Ohio, a backlog started to form for Rocco Fumi.
“Please remember,” said a member of the Bishop Ready staff, “we have a number of people who can help you!”
“Oh, no that’s ok,” one student replied—seemingly speaking for the entire group. “Mr. Fumi is here! We want to talk to him!”
When asked to explain the reason behind his apparently sudden surge in popularity, Rocco offered, “It’s all about relationships.”
Specifically, it was the relationships that Rocco—now in his second year as dean of students at Bishop Ready—built with those students and their families during his 16 years as principal of the elementary school just two blocks down the road, St. Mary Magdalene Catholic School.
Rocco arrived at St. Mary Magdalene in 2002, when the school community included just one Latino family and one African-American family. By the time he left in 2018, St. Mary Magdalene’s student body had grown 65 percent and was 40% Latino and 15% African American.
A few years into his role at St. Mary Magdalene, Rocco was looking for ways to increase enrollment and respond to the changing demographics of his school’s neighborhoods on the west side of Columbus. At the urging of Yvonne Schwab—then the principal at St. James the Less Catholic School in Columbus—Rocco applied and was accepted into the second cohort of the Alliance for Catholic Education’s Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI).
After his time on Notre Dame’s campus that summer, Rocco returned to St. Mary Magdalene and began forming relationships with families by incorporating many of the strategies and tactics he picked up at the LEI, such as speaking to families at the end of Mass.
“I remember the first time I went to a Mass to talk to families about their children coming to our school,” Rocco said. “A lot of parents were very apprehensive, but as they saw how welcoming and caring we were, many families began seeking me out at Masses because they wanted their children to come to St. Mary Magdalene.”
In addition to appearing frequently at Mass, Rocco and his team started to print the school’s forms and paperwork in both English and Spanish. The staff also committed to learning a few phrases in Spanish to make families feel more comfortable. The school’s welcoming spirit proved so effective that St. Mary Magdalene no longer saw a need for some of their other marketing efforts.
“We didn’t need to put ads in the newspaper or messages on the radio,” said Rocco. “When people saw that we were treating their families with respect and celebrating their culture, they would tell their friends and neighbors about St. Mary Magdalene.”
Each year more and more families would walk into the school office and request to enroll their children because they had been referred by other families. Many parents faced language barriers, but Rocco and his team worked with each family through the registration process and made sure they knew that their children would be loved and cared for.
“Families could tell by the smiles on our faces and our welcoming handshakes that at our school they were going to be treated with respect,” Rocco said. “They would then bring their friends, relatives, and neighbors to register their kids at the school.”
The welcoming culture that Rocco cultivated at St. Mary Magdalene helped to grow the school’s enrollment from 153 students to 252 students, including an increase in Latino students from 15 to 110.
These impressive enrollment achievements caught the attention of the Bishop Ready administration, who asked Rocco to join their team in 2018 as the dean of students. Knowing that he would be able to work with many of his former St. Mary Magdalene students and families, Rocco was eager to accept the role and make the jump to the high school level.
Noting that members of the Bishop Ready team would benefit from the experience of the LEI, Rocco contacted LEI Program Director Manuel Fernandez to see if he and one of his colleagues could join the program as members of cohort 8 this past summer.
“It was nice to be back on campus,” Rocco said. “I wanted to get refreshed on a lot of the concepts and strategies, especially now that I was looking at things from the perspective of a high school administrator.”
It didn’t take for Rocco to return to Bishop Ready and make an impact. He was tapped to be the point person for the diocese’s second annual Guadalupe Summit, a day for Latino high school students to gather at Ohio Dominican University for prayer and reflection upon their shared experiences.
Even though this year’s event was canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Rocco was able to see the impact that it had on his students during their initial meetings.
“I gathered our Latino students together earlier in the year to tell them that I was working with the diocese and at a national level to increase Latino enrollment,” Rocco said. “And I could see the excitement and trust in their eyes because someone was going to speak up for them.”
When asked what differences he noticed in his second time through the LEI, Rocco noted that this year’s version of the program contained more resources aimed at educators working at the high school level. In fact, all of the members of his Cohort 8 professional learning community are high school administrators.
While the program has evolved and adapted throughout the years, there was one constant refrain that Rocco kept hearing over and over again from the LEI speakers, team members, and other participants:
“It’s all about relationships.”
Learn more about the Latino Enrollment Institute at ace.nd.edu/lei.