ACE logo

St. Mary's Catholic School

on Monday, 18 February 2013.

Mexican Dancers St

In 2006, Marianne White was appointed principal of St. Mary's Catholic School in Boise, Idaho. A native of Boise, as well as an alumna of St. Mary's, Marianne was excited about returning to her roots after many years living in the eastern United States. "When I returned to St. Mary's School," says Marianne, "I found it looked much like the same school I had attended as a child." There was very little cultural diversity in the school, with only about five percent of the total enrollment being ethnic minorities. Furthermore, of that five percent most were children who had been adopted from other countries. At the same time, there was a rapidly growing Latino population in the parish, yet only two Latino families were enrolled at St. Mary's School. "I found this curious since the parish demographics had changed so dramatically," says Marianne. Seeing so many devoted Catholic families with young children who were not enrolled at the school, she couldn't help but wonder why. Rather than wait for new families to inquire about the school, Marianne resolved to embrace her role as principal and make known the option and affordability of a St. Mary's education to Latino parishioners and members of the community.

Shortly after assuming the role of principal, Marianne and her staff obtained WCEA (Western Catholic Educational Association) accreditation, as well as developed several concrete goals for the direction that their school was headed. Among these was to increase the Catholic identity of St. Mary's, which Marianne viewed as opening the school doors wider than ever before so that all children could experience the gift of a Catholic education. "One of the things I quickly learned as principal of a Catholic school," says Marianne, "is that this role is far more than a job; it is a vocation to which I and any Catholic school administrator/teacher is called, both to serve and to foster a community that will develop disciples of Christ." Additionally, increasing the school's enrollment to ensure its sustainability was on the agenda, but with a particular focus on reaching out to the Latino families in the parish and the community.
In 2009, St. Mary's School began an effort to welcome the Latino members of their parish community to the parish school. That same year, the University of Notre Dame published the Task Force Report on the Participation of Latino Children and Families in Catholic Schools, To Nurture the Soul of a Nation. "We at St. Mary's embraced this document," says Marianne. " I sent it to every board member, our parish staff, school staff, and all of the key players within both communities and asked them to read it carefully. It was a real boost to the efforts that we had already begun." Marianne then reached out to the Hispanic Committee to arrange a meeting with their leadership team. "The Task Force Report was the cornerstone of my conversation as I invited them to encourage the Hispanic families they knew to enroll in the school," says Marianne. This was the first time that anyone had made a targeted effort to reach out to the Latino community in the parish and invite them to the school. Subsequently, much interest was shown in the school and the number of Latino families enrolling at St. Mary's began to rise. In the following, Marianne recounts a personal experience in which the school's changing culture became an opportunity for growth.

Once we began recruiting and enrolling more Latino families at St. Mary's, there were some significant changes in our school environment. An experience that stands out in my mind is when one of our Hispanic families approached me. They asked if the Hispanic community could renovate the stairwell. The same day, one of our Caucasian families approached me and they, too, asked if they could renovate the stairwell. I viewed this as a wonderful opportunity to learn to work together. And what an experience it turned out to be. We had misunderstandings; we worked through them. We had miscommunication; we worked through that as well. When it came time to select the colors for the paint and new flooring, so too was it time for me to personally work through my own upbringing and my German heritage, which had always taught me that some things must always remain the same. My assumption was that everyone knew the St. Mary's School interior was to be blue and white; it had always been blue and white. For 65 years, it had been blue and white. Someone from the Hispanic group suggested yellow. I felt myself swallow hard, and it was at this moment that I realized I must personally visit my own biases. I didn't even know that I had these biases. Here I was spearheading a wonderful endeavor that I hoped would teach the value of stepping outside of our cultural norms and learn to work with those of other cultures, and it was I who had to pause and take stalk of my own background and resistance to change. It was somewhat of an epiphany for me, that we must all challenge our own assumptions and the biases we may have in order to move forward. I also realized that we all do this at our own pace, but it is nonetheless paramount to creating a truly culturally diverse and accepting school environment. Needless to say, our new stairwell, and now our gym, is yellow, two shades of green, and yes, even red. It is beautiful and we are truly blessed.

Among some of the other things that have been a part of St. Mary's effort to create a more welcoming environment to Latino families is diversity training for both the school and parish staff, as well as staff training on Mexican history and culture. In 2010, Marianne invited the newly appointed Mexican Consulate and his staff to visit St. Mary's School, which has proven to be a fruitful relationship, keeping the staff and families at the school informed of events going on in the community. That same year, St. Mary's pastor, Fr. Thomas Faucher, appointed the first Hispanic representative to the school governing board. One of the first changes enacted from Latino representation on the school board was the inclusion of Spanish in the Kindergarten curriculum. Marianne notes that after "seeing the success of Spanish instruction in our Kindergarten classrooms, we decided to roll out Spanish instruction to all grades and have celebrated Mass in Spanish, which was a truly beautiful experience for all."

Tamales StThe St. Mary's school community now comes together in many different ways. The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a big celebration held each year. While it used to be a feast day celebrated exclusively by the Latino community at the parish, the entire school community now participates. St. Mary's has even formed a traditional Mexican dance group that has grown in popularity over the past several years. They now also host an annual tamale-making event for the Christmas celebration, bringing in so many volunteers this past year that the kitchen was filled to capacity.

While it is quite evident that Marianne and her staff at St. Mary's School have done much to transform the school culture into one that embraces the traditions and family life of all its children, it is a task that requires ongoing efforts to sustain the school's success and expand opportunities to more and more children and families. When asked what has been one of the most effective marketing tools to increase Latino enrollment in the school, Marianne responded that word-of-mouth advertising has been far and away the most successful form of outreach to the Latino community, both within the parish and externally as well. "The Latino families that we have in the school tell their friends about their children's success at St. Mary's, and the process just continues on down the line." Another significant contributor to St. Mary's recent enrollment success has been their modification of the enrollment process. "The amount of enrollment paperwork is overwhelming to any family, let alone those who may not speak English as their first language," says Marianne. "We realized that we simply could not require all of the paperwork that we always had in the past. In addition, we realized that not all families will complete a financial aid packet as not everyone is here with legal status." By modifying the tuition collection program, which all families are required to be on, it has helped many parents with irregular paydays, and those that may only be able to pay in cash on a weekly basis.

All of these efforts have been instrumental in St. Mary's success, but Marianne points out that the single most important factor that has allowed their school to grow, diversify, and flourish has been the focused and collaborative effort that the entire staff has made to welcome the Latino community into the school under the supportive leadership of their pastor, Fr. Faucher. "He and our entire staff value, celebrate, and promote the diversity of our parish, our school, and our community," says Marianne. "If there is anything I can offer in advice to other schools facing difficulties recruiting Latino families and increasing their enrollment, I would say that the leadership must be passionate and believe in this mission. You must challenge your assumptions and cultural biases, and make modifications to your enrollment and tuition payment plans. Most importantly, though, remember that we are on a mission and it's a long road ahead. But it is imperative that we reach out to our Latino brothers and sisters in our communities with the same welcoming spirit that our Catholic schools have always shown."

Share this story. . .