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Learning and Growing with the LEI: More Than Just Latino Enrollment

How a small network of principals is on a four-year journey to deepen their efforts to serve Latino communities

LEI mid-year retreat, small group

When Fr. Joe Corpora, C.S.C., started the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) in 2012, he was not sure what it would become, nor exactly how he would even pull it off, but he knew that there was a dire need to get more Latino children into Catholic schools. He also knew that the Alliance for Catholic Education had a golden opportunity to teach school leaders how to get it done. As Fr. Joe often says, “We were building the plane as we were flying it!” Fast forward ten years and the LEI has welcomed over 400 schools to campus and helped those schools add over 6,500 Latino students to their campuses. 

But as the LEI evolved and grew, we noticed a yearning from several school leaders for more than just a summer conference and a one-year principal mentorship program. Several expressed a desire to continue learning from their peers and their LEI mentors. 

One of my favorite parts of the LEI has been forming a connection with my mentors for more than one year. Both of my mentors have pushed me to look at my school through a different lens, kept me on track with the goals I set, and supported me when I felt defeated. I appreciate that both of them were successful in working as principals and could draw on their first-hand experiences.
Kelly Vangsness
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School
St. Cloud, MN

Sarah Watson, former principal at St. Lawrence School in Indianapolis, IN, and current Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis said, “After completing year one of the LEI, I felt a kinship with my group and I knew I needed to stay with the LEI. With monthly modules and Zoom calls, you simply do not stop learning after the conference ends.”

In response, our team devised a plan to offer school leaders who expressed a desire to continue the work they had begun in the LEI an opportunity to continue growing. We expanded the monthly module and Zoom call system that the school leaders had come to rely on for guidance and support for another year. LEI principals were then placed in teams of five and again assigned a mentor principal. They worked through a new set of monthly modules that expanded on many of the topics they had focused on during the first year, while also exploring some new ones, all with the goal of deepening their expertise in serving Latino children and families in their school. And while this additional year of the LEI did not include any type of in-person meeting, new bonds inevitably formed.

“When I heard about the LEI 2.0, I knew that I wanted to continue because of the knowledge I gained during my first year in the program. I also felt that a second year would give me more time to implement strategies I learned during my first year,” said Kelly Vangsness, principal of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in St. Cloud, MN.

Gary Davis, principal of St. Thomas More Catholic School in Omaha, NE, joined for a different reason. “I believe that networking and connecting with other principals is so important. That is the main reason why I’ve continued with the LEI community. I really enjoy the conversations.” 

Sarah Watson added, “The networking has been such an important part of the LEI. If we are all working in our own silos, we are not accomplishing the mission. These LEI teams are essential to helping us grow.”


LEI small group meeting at summer conference
Sarah Watson (second from right) meeting with her mentor and team at the LEI summer conference.


What the initial success of the LEI 2.0 showed us is that for many Catholic school leaders, one year in the program simply isn’t enough. On some level, this was to be expected. Given the relationships formed within the program and the nearly immediate impact that many schools experienced during that first year, it came as no surprise that some school leaders wanted to continue building on that. What we did not anticipate, however, was to see that the eagerness and desire exhibited by some of these school leaders did not wane, even after a second year in the program. As the LEI 2.0 came to a close, we were pleasantly surprised to see that several principals were again asking, “What’s next?” So the LEI 3.0 was born. And one might predict what followed a year later.

So what keeps these school leaders returning to the LEI? From the feedback we solicited from the principals who remain active in the program, we found that there are two main reasons: the ability to connect and grow with a like-minded group of school leaders facing the same challenges and opportunities, and the strength and guidance of the mentor principals.

Sarah Watson helps explain the first reason. “I found the camaraderie and sharing with fellow principals and my mentors to be the ongoing professional development I needed to continue growing. Some members of my team have been with me for a few years. During that time, not only have we shared ideas, successes, challenges, and more, we have also developed a bond in what can often be a pretty chaotic world. The ongoing professional development each month is what makes the LEI Zoom calls the best; I always suggest the LEI to my peers because of the continuous learning and the friendships you develop!”

Rita Klenk, principal of Epiphany Catholic School in Lake City, FL, said a damaging effect of the pandemic has been the limited amount of contact she has had with other administrators, but her LEI Zoom meetings have really helped mitigate that. “I do believe that networking and connecting with other principals is important. With COVID-19, we have had a limited ability to meet in person with other administrators in our diocese and it has been greatly missed. The cancellation of live NCEA conferences had also prevented us from seeing/hearing from people from all over the country. I think it’s critical that we know what is going on in Catholic schools outside of just those in our own towns and dioceses.”

Rita Klenk, Principal of Epiphany Catholic School
Rita Klenk | Principal, Epiphany Catholic School | Lake City, FL

The other theme we have repeatedly heard from LEI 4.0 participants is that they have been blessed to be guided by incredible LEI mentor principals. These individuals provide invaluable mentorship via Zoom calls and email communication, which helps the LEI principals implement the best practices shared at the LEI summer conference. The consistent mentorship component of the LEI has proved to be one of the most important factors in ensuring the growth of both schools and school leaders within this mission.

LEI mentors have been instrumental in helping the principals in the program grow as Catholic school leaders who both understand and are attentive to the unique cultural and linguistic gifts that Latino students and families bring to their schools. When reflecting on her experience in the LEI, Kelly Vangsness said, “One of my favorite parts of the LEI has been forming a connection with my mentors for more than one year. Both of my mentors have pushed me to look at my school through a different lens, kept me on track with the goals I set, and supported me when I felt defeated. I appreciate that both of them were successful in working as principals and could draw on their first-hand experiences.”

When asked about the relationship she has developed with her LEI mentor, Rita Klenk said, “She is the reason I keep signing up for another year! Her enthusiasm, honesty, sense of humor, and grace really help me to keep everything in perspective as we work to keep our doors open and provide a Catholic education for students in our area.”

The evolution of the LEI from being a one-year program to a multi-year journey for many school leaders is affirmation that the unofficial mantra of the program—It’s all about relationships—is, in fact, true. The professional relationships—and indeed, friendships—formed through the small teams of Catholic school principals plays such an integral role in these leaders’ success. And as long there is a desire to continue growing in this capacity, our team is dedicated to serving these schools for as long as we can. 

LEI 10.0, here we come!


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