Embracing Change: St. Bernard School Becomes Second Largest Catholic Elementary School in Wisconsin through Latino Outreach Efforts
St. Bernard Catholic School, located in Northeast Wisconsin, has been a staple in the East Side neighborhood of Green Bay since 1958. The year it opened, the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity welcomed 368 students from the surrounding farms and the bustling, but relatively homogeneous, neighborhoods. Back then, the school community was very much a reflection of the community in which it was located. At its peak enrollment in 2005, the school topped 500 students.
Only five years later, following the unfortunate trend of many Catholic schools around the country, St. Bernard School started to see its enrollment drop by about 9 percent each year, reaching levels it hadn’t seen since its very early days of operation. Despite their enrollment struggles, the school worked to maintain its reputation for providing a top-quality education, as well as its track record for teaching children to read who were not finding success elsewhere. They continued to draw families from a relatively expansive radius, but despite their strength as an academic institution, the school’s outlook looked bleak if they didn’t respond directly to the changes that were at the root of the school’s downward enrollment trend.
The thing that was changing was the neighborhood. A significant demographic shift was underway and St. Bernard School was becoming less and less a reflection of the community in which it was located. In 2000, the census in the city of Green Bay indicated a growing Latino population, with 7 percent of its inhabitants identifying as Hispanic/Latino. By 2010, that number had risen to 13 percent. At that time, the president of the GRACE school system (Green Bay Area Catholic Education), to which St. Bernard belongs, recognized that in order to respond to this demographic shift, the next school principal would need to understand how to reach out to and serve the local Latino population.
Crystal Blahnik became principal of St. Bernard School in 2014, bringing with her many years of experience serving diverse communities in both Texas and the Pacific Islands. Blahnik was able to engage key stakeholders and began implementing changes that quickly turned into enrollment growth. When she came on board, St. Bernard School’s enrollment was at 423 students, 42 of whom (10 percent) identified as Hispanic/Latino. In the summer of 2015, Blahnik and two member of the St. Bernard School staff attended the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) at the University of Notre Dame, and participation in the program became the springboard for a success story that is still unfolding.
St. Bernard School began the current school year (2017-18) with 464 students, a Latino enrollment that has grown to 125 students, and even a waiting list for one grade. For the upcoming school year (2018-19), St. Bernard School already has waiting lists for three grades, and the school is on track to exceed the current enrollment by another 9 percent. This will be the third year of overall enrollment growth since the summer of 2015, completely reversing the direction of a multi-year decline.
Following is a reflection from Principal Crystal Blahnik about some of the key steps that her school has taken since attending the LEI to attract and better serve Latino families in their community.
Upon returning from the LEI, our staff was on fire with excitement from what we learned. We quickly put up welcome signs in Spanish, and a neighboring parish gifted us with a beautiful image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which we framed and prominently displayed at the school entrance. We formed relationships with current families through the inception of a Madrinas program, and the school’s materials were slowly translated into Spanish. Today, all of our school communication happens in both English and Spanish, and a translation system helps to ensure that new families can participate fully in school events and gatherings. The addition of a Home-School Liaison has also allowed our school to personally reach out to new and returning families who speak Spanish. The professionalization of this position has allowed the Spanish-speaking school families to feel secure in the fact that they can communicate with an employee of the school in their native language during important school meetings.
The community has become a rich combination of cultural backgrounds, which we celebrate at different points throughout the year. Each September, the school year now opens with a Dieciséis de Septiembre celebration organized by the students. This is a free event that allows all children to learn about seven different Latin American countries, their food, crafts, arts, and people. Our students all work side by side decorating, serving food, hitting piñatas, and holding a salsa contest. The parents have commented on the fact that they would be in trouble if their child were to miss this event! November now brings our annual celebration of El Día de Los Muertos, and in January this year, the school organized its first bilingual Mass with the support of the pastor, Fr. Mark VanderSteeg.
With an increase of over 50 students in one year, we anticipated the changes this might require on our end and we prepared for it together. We evaluated all of our student files to identify students with any additional learning needs and worked to ensure that returning and new students would have their reading and math needs met.
We have made a significant investment in professional development since the fall of 2015, providing direction, vision, and support to the entire school staff. This year, I and five of my teachers participated in the ENL Online Modules provided by ACE. We each worked through the modules individually and then met for one hour each month to process what we had learned and how it can be applied and shared.
Above all, the most beautiful aspect of this endeavor to increase our school’s Latino enrollment has been the illumination of Catholic social teachings and the true mission of our Catholic school. There has been a renewed passion among the school faculty for the ministry of teaching, and it has reminded us all how rewarding the calling of a Catholic school educator can be.
St. Bernard School is now the largest Catholic elementary school in the Diocese of Green Bay, and is the second largest Catholic elementary School in the state of Wisconsin. While just five years ago, only 8 percent of the student population identified as Hispanic/Latino, that number is at 26 percent today and growing.
If you’re interested in learning how your Catholic school can recruit and better serve Latino children and families, click here to find out more about the Latino Enrollment Institute.