Cultivating Community Contacts and Carrying Car-Line Conversations: Tapping into the Power of Madrinas
“Oh no, esta escuela católica no es para nosotros. Es para los ricos!” This is a line that many school leaders attending ACE’s Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) have heard all too often from Latino parents - that their local Catholic school is not for them. It’s only for the rich.
LEI’s decade of work in increasing Latino enrollment has highlighted the unfortunate reality that many Latino families have too little information when it comes to Catholic schools in the United States. Since Catholic schools in Latin America typically serve only the elite members of society, many low and middle-income Latino families in the United States consider a Catholic education to be inaccessible, and they do not even consider it to be an educational option for their children. We regard this to be a missed opportunity for schools and a missed opportunity for families.
The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) recently released sobering statistics of record-breaking drops in enrollment in Catholic schools across the country. Given that many of these drops came in urban areas in heavily populated Latino neighborhoods, schools with Latino children have been among the hardest hit. This has left many school and diocesan leaders wondering what they can do to ensure the fastest-growing group of Catholics in the United States continues to benefit from a Catholic education.
For almost ten years, the LEI has been committed to answering this question - How do we both grow enrollment in Catholic schools and better serve Latino students and families? Fortunately, the answer to this question does not lie in an elaborate marketing campaign nor an expensive hiring spree. In fact, we have found that the most effective practice for attracting and serving Latino families and children is both accessible and cost-free for all schools.
Like most positive developments in the world, change happens when we leverage the power of community, relationships, and invested stakeholders. There has been no truer testament to this than the transformation and growth we’ve witnessed when LEI schools have tapped into the power of their madrinas.
In a recent survey of over 200 Catholic school leaders who participated in the LEI, the formation of a madrinas program topped the list as the first step they took upon returning to their schools and is the one action item to which most school leaders attribute their Latino enrollment growth. Madrinas have the ability to help boost enrollment as well as strengthen the community from within as they serve as liaisons, ambassadors, and translators between Catholic schools and Latino families in the community.
Madrinas: Who are they and how can they support your school?
Madrina is a Spanish word meaning “godmother,” and in the context of the work of the LEI, the term extends far beyond a title given to godparents at baptism. The term encompasses a female figure in the community - although the term padrino can be extended to males in a similar role - who is trusted, valued, and regarded as a leader. The opinion of a madrina is respected and sought after. Much like a social media influencer holds great sway over his/her followers, your madrinas are your “movers and shakers” and can be leveraged as an invaluable marketing tool.
A madrina possesses a deep love for the school and the parish, and a strong desire to see the school flourish. A madrina, in essence, is a salesperson for the school, and salespeople who are passionate about the products they sell tend to make more sales.
Jo Jones, former principal of Corpus Christi Catholic School in Holland, MI, said her madrinas had a burning desire to see her school thrive because the school was doing so much for Latino Catholics. “You could see the love for their Catholic faith and the love for the school community in their faces every day. Because of that, they easily became my best salespeople!”
When identifying a potential madrina in your school community, look for individuals who already exhibit a high level of engagement. An effective madrina should be active in the school and parish community, and ideally, in the wider community as well. Patty Lansink, former principal of St. Rose of Lima School in Denison, IA, and now Superintendent of Schools in the Diocese of Sioux City, can attest that this may not always be immediately apparent. “I made sure that the first madrinas I approached were involved in the parish community, but then I learned that behind the scenes they were already very involved in the Latino community within the school as well.”
In addition to being a passionate and highly engaged leader in the school and parish community, an influential madrina must also be warm and sociable. Yvonne Schwab, former principal of St. James the Less School in Columbus, OH, and a long-serving LEI Mentor, always encourages principals to pay close attention to the school parking lots and car line gatherings to pinpoint the social butterflies and leaders. “It’s amazing to think that your best marketing tool is a lovely and caring mother who is waiting in a car line!” says Yvonne. “The magic happens when you invite her to partner with you to spread the word about your Catholic school.”
It should be noted here that, while we typically use the term madrinas to describe the individuals who take on this role in a Catholic school, the practice of leveraging community members to help recruit, market, and mentor new families need not be referred to exclusively in this manner. One of the most common names applied to this type of grassroots marketing and relationship building is parent ambassadors. We’ve seen many of our LEI school leaders begin parent ambassador programs in the same vein as a madrinas program and have great success with it. Deb Roberts, principal of Annunciation Catholic School in Denver, CO, says “Even though we did not adopt the name ‘madrina,’ I appreciated having a model and best practices from other schools at the LEI to think about as I set out to re-energize my parent group.”
Similarly, principal Elaine Schad of Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Denton, TX, enlisted the help of her school’s madrinas but had some fun with the name. She calls her group the “Latina Mamas'' and she says the group has been instrumental in helping the school grow its Latino enrollment. “Our Latina Mamas group has really blossomed. We've dedicated ourselves to having a bilingual presence at our reception desk and in our recruitment efforts. We have Hispanic liaisons in all areas, including our online community support during COVID-19.”
The Madrinas Model: Getting Started
Upon leaving the LEI in the summer of 2014, one of the first things Patty Lansink did was organize a group of madrinas at her school. “The LEI helped us realize that we were already doing some things well to engage our Latino families, but we came away with a great list of ‘next things,’ one of which was starting a madrinas program,” Patty said. “We had a great pool of wonderful moms and parish ladies from which to choose, but we started with a few of our most engaged and involved in the school and built it from there. They were my sounding board. They brainstormed fundraisers unique to the Latino parish members, and they helped us redesign school events to make them more welcoming to Latino families at St. Rose.”
Patty knew that having a strong group of madrinas would aid her greatly in being able to reach the Latino community in her school’s neighborhood. Having a person embedded in the community make the case for St. Rose of Lima to other parents would prove to be a game-changer for Patty and the population of her school. “They definitely helped promote the school at Spanish Masses and throughout their community. They helped others see that a Catholic education at St. Rose was affordable and accessible for their children.”
Participants of the LEI conference are treated to a session where two madrinas from Corpus Christi School in Holland, MI, speak to the cohort about their own experiences as school madrinas and how their journeys in Catholic education have benefited their own children. They also give testimony to how much they enjoy paying it forward to the school and to the Latino community. “Listening to those women speak with such heartfelt emotion spurred me to action,” said Kandice Roethler of St. Patrick School in Perry, IA. She knew the first thing she needed to do upon returning to her school after attending the LEI was begin a madrinas program, something her school desperately needed. “The impact of a madrinas/parent ambassador program was a major takeaway for me. We began that process right away.”
The Madrinas Model: The Many Roles of a Madrina
The madrinas model employs a grassroots marketing approach in which madrinas connect Latino families to a strong neighborhood Catholic school. By spreading the good news of Catholic education and its impact on the educational and personal successes of Latino children in America, madrinas become ambassadors who can create a positive ripple effect for the school within the Latino community. A network of madrinas can assist Catholic schools by taking on three vital roles: marketing, recruiting, and mentoring new families.
Madrinas help school leaders develop a set of messages and a plan to convey them in person and through written materials that are distributed more broadly. Working closely with the team of madrinas, the Catholic school must articulate its “value proposition” for Latino children, including the key facts and figures of academic achievement data, the robust Catholic environment, the availability of financial aid, and the process to enroll. The madrinas must be conversant with these facts; they will serve as the primary communicators and they will be able to disseminate the information that is understandable to Latino parents.
With the messages and materials prepared, madrinas identify and reach out to Latino families, educating them on the advantages of Catholic schools, inviting them to visit the parish school, serving as tour guides on open house days, explaining the process of applying, and helping prospective families with the application.
Madrinas serve as mentors to parents interested in becoming involved in their Catholic schools. By providing parents with the proper tools and resources, madrinas can help them take full advantage of all the school has to offer. They also become additional advocates for the benefits of a Catholic education to their community. As a result of their work, a wide network of people who are generating interest in Catholic schools is built in the community.
The Madrinas Model: The Impact of Empowerment
While we tend to focus on the more tangible and immediate impacts that madrinas can have on a Catholic school, such as enrollment growth and improved communication with families, some of their most profound contributions are the way in which they give greater representation and autonomy to often underrepresented families and their cultures. Ted Kanelopoulos, principal of La Salle High School in Yakima, WA, partners with a madrina who also happens to be a long-time faculty member of the school. He says she sets high expectations for her students because she wants the best for them and for the Latino community as a whole. “Our Madrinas Program Director is a lifelong resident of our Valley and understands the realities of growing up as a first-generation Latina in our rural community. She has a passion to help students realize their abilities. She regularly meets with school administration and her input is vital to the school’s overall efforts to be inclusive and supportive of our Latino community.”
Kanelopoulos says his school’s madrina is pivotal to their outreach program and has taken every task he's given her and run with it. Their working relationship has grown such that she now comes up with many of the ideas on her own and he trusts her implicitly. “In addition to being a liaison to Latino parents, she coordinates a food pantry on campus that is available throughout the day for students who come to school hungry or without food for the day. She also serves as an important cultural mentor to the school administration and has been exceptional at coaching administration.”
While for years the madrinas model was used primarily in elementary schools, high schools have also started to adopt this model with great success. At La Salle High School, Kanelopoulos’ school madrina also plays a vital role in preparing Latino students for college by assisting them in the college admissions process. With Latino college acceptance rates being below their peers, Kanelopoulos is grateful for his madrina’s wisdom and vigor, and sees her as an integral part of his students’ present and future. “As most of the students she serves are first-generation college applicants, she spends a great deal of her time counseling parents and students through the college search and acceptance process. She organizes annual trips for students and parents to visit colleges as part of her role as a madrina. She’s an absolutely essential part of our culture.”
Similarly, Deb Roberts at Annunciation Catholic School was amazed by the initiative and leadership that her first group of madrinas displayed. “I came in thinking that this would be something I would have to run. But as with any group, some natural leaders emerged. I took the time to make sure that all voices were being honored, but I also had to learn that once I gave the green light to an idea, I had to step back and put my trust in our parents and in God. And the madrinas have been amazing!”
Oftentimes, the enterprise exhibited by school madrinas extends far beyond the typical duties associated with recruitment and marketing and into the planning and coordinating of a whole host of important events on the school’s calendar. Deb Robert’s madrinas took ownership of many dormant school traditions, while also adding new ones of their own. “I had several parents who once attended this school themselves say that they had fond memories of our traditions and celebrations and they wanted the same for their children. So they took responsibility for cultural events such as Dia de los Muertos, the Ofrenda, and Las Posadas, as well as traditional school events like the Trunk-or-Treat and bringing food for teachers on teacher conference days. They’ve been wonderful!” Jo Jones added, “It got to the point where I didn’t have to do anything. They were coming up with ideas, and once I gave them the green light, off they went. And they planned events much better than I could have ever dreamed of!”
The Madrinas Model: Scaling Up
While we most commonly see individual schools implementing the Madrinas Model, we have been encouraged by recent coordinated diocesan efforts as well. A prime example is Angelica Hurtado, Coordinator of Diversity, Marketing, and Enrollment for the Diocese of Charlotte. Hurtado attended the 2019 summer conference and was inspired to bring the Madrinas Model back to her diocese . “I was confident that this could work perfectly in our Catholic Schools. I worked on the madrinas project and presented it to the superintendent at the time, Dr. Janice Ritter, who approved. We have a madrinas program in four schools and two are currently in training. Our new Superintendent, Dr. Gregory Monroe, has been very supportive and encourages the rest of our schools to participate and implement the program. And it has been a game-changer for us. Even with the pandemic, our enrollment is growing, and our madrinas groups are growing as well!”
Hurtado continues to say madrinas are critical to Latino enrollment. “Our madrinas are constantly sharing the good news about Catholic Education wherever they go—at their parish, within the school, and out in the community! We have very passionate madrinas.” Her madrinas also work as ambassadors representing the school at predominantly Latino events. “Open Houses at the school, PTO parent events, local community festivals, and even helping out the school office with phone calls - they do it all. And they were instrumental in communicating Return to Campus safety measures to the Latino community this past summer as we resumed classes during the pandemic.”
While the pandemic has heightened the urgency to increase enrollment in Catholic schools, this work of serving Latino students and families remains vitally important for reasons far beyond school enrollment. Declining enrollment is still an issue of great concern for many Catholic schools throughout the country, but an equally pressing challenge exists in the call to build intercultural school communities anchored in respect and understanding that embrace the growing diversity of our nation and church.
By empowering madrinas to partner with you to promote your school, you are taking a clear step toward fostering learning communities that celebrate the distinct linguistic and cultural assets of students and families. The LEI team has witnessed time and again the benefits Latino children accrue from attending Catholic schools that are committed to this mission, and, perhaps even more importantly, the ways in which Latino children and their families enrich Catholic schools.
Interested in beginning a Madrinas program at your school?
Check out our step-by-step guide, The Madrinas Model: Attracting Latino Families to Your Catholic Schools, available as a free digital download on our website.
And consider joining the Latino Enrollment Institute! We are currently accepting applications for our 9th cohort with limited space remaining. Visit the LEI home page to learn more and apply.