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The Pastor and the Principal: Partners in Catholic Education

Written by Steve McClure on Wednesday, 26 September 2018.

For St. Mary's Academy in The Dalles, Oregon, the LEI and the SPI proved to be a winning combination.

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There is arguably no relationship more integral to the vibrancy of a Catholic school than that between the pastor and the principal. While it has become somewhat of a mantra in the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) that the “principal is the single most important lever for change in a school,” the pastor often plays an equally important role, especially in the endeavor to recruit and better serve Latino families.

Located in The Dalles, Oregon, a rural farming community along the shores of the Columbia River, St. Mary’s Academy serves as a compelling example of the growth and vitality that can result from the shared vision of a committed school leader and an engaged pastor in responding to a changing community.

For many years now, Oregon’s Latino population has grown at a rate faster than the national rate - a reality that was becoming more and more apparent in the demographic makeup of St. Peter’s Catholic Church - the school’s parish across the street - as well as in the surrounding public schools. “When looking at the number of Latino families with school-age children registered in our parish,” says Kim Koch, Principal of St. Mary’s Academy, “it was apparent that we were serving a very small portion of a very prominent population in our parish, and an even more vast population within our entire community.”

When Kim first became principal of St. Mary’s Academy, she faced several daunting challenges. Enrollment, which had previously been over 200 students, had fallen to about 140, and the school underwent a number of severe budget cuts and a reduction in staff. With a history spanning more than 150 years, St. Mary’s Academy was no stranger to change, however. Kim embraced this one as an opportunity to reevaluate many of the school’s practices in order to find ways that they could better serve their current families, as well as attract new ones.

ncsw student cross 3Through her efforts to personally reach out to prospective families, and by enlisting the help of current school parents and parishioners to spread the word about the school, they started to see growing interest. She also worked to establish partnerships with local businesses to support the cost of tuition, spoke at the Chamber of Commerce and neighboring parishes, as well as offered incentives to current families for their recruitment efforts. Slowly, enrollment began to reverse course and steadily climb. Kim knew, however, that they could do much more to serve the Latino students enrolled in their school, as well as attract new Latino families.

In 2017, a team from St. Mary’s Academy attended the Latino Enrollment Institute at the University of Notre Dame to do just that. Kim had learned about the opportunity from the school’s pastor, Fr. Joseph Levine, who had attended the School Pastors’ Institute (SPI) at Notre Dame the previous summer. Energized by their individual experiences at the summer institutes, and having heard a very similar message, Kim and Fr. Levine now shared a common vision for what they wanted the school to be, as well as a mutual understanding of how to go about achieving it. They realized that the key to the school’s future lied in The Dalles’ growing Latino population.

At the heart of their outreach efforts has been, quite simply, being visible in the community. “We have worked hard to be present in the community and Fr. Levine has played a key role in speaking with our Latino parishioners to help them feel welcome and a part of our school,” says Kim. “He has truly been our biggest supporter. He has spoken with countless families to inform them about the scholarships we have available, as well as to clear up misunderstandings and false perceptions about who our school is here to serve.”

“Kim and Fr. Levine now shared a common vision for what they wanted the school to be, as well as a mutual understanding of how to go about achieving it. They realized that the key to the school’s future lied in The Dalles’ growing Latino population."

Kim notes that this commitment to being present and active in the Latino community extends beyond just herself and Fr. Levine. Many of the school’s staff and faculty members now make an effort to be present at Latino functions. Additionally, they have made a number of changes within the school to ensure that Latino families feel right at home. They recently hired two Spanish-speaking staff members, have translated all school documents into Spanish, and have support staff and translators available for all conferences and school functions. “Fr. Levine and I have also reached out directly to our families to make sure that we are meeting all of their needs,” says Kim. “We want to know how their experience in the school has been, as well as give them an opportunity to ask us any questions and express any concerns.”

Their efforts have unquestionably paid off, as the school’s enrollment once again surpassed 200, a quarter of which is now Latino. “I think the key is to find out what your community wants and needs and to go from there,” says Kim. “I have an amazing staff that jumps in and supports new challenges.”

Kim also attributes much of her school’s recent success to her experience in the Latino Enrollment Institute. “The LEI was the single best professional development I have ever attended,” says Kim. “It has completely changed my outlook and I am so honored that our school was chosen to attend. This experience has been one of much growth and enjoyment, as our Latino students and families have brought so much to the school.”

As a member of the sixth cohort of the LEI, Kim worked with a mentor principal, meeting monthly via video conference with a small team of principals also in the program. Together they worked through a series of modules related to serving Latino communities, while sharing their own challenges, successes, and best practices with their peers engaged in the same mission. In fact, Kim found this time to be so helpful that she opted to continue working with a team over the course of the current school year (2018-19) through the LEI 2.0, a new offering which extends the program by an entire year in order to further deepen the knowledge and expertise of LEI principals. “I realize that we can still continue to grow and we can always learn more,” says Kim. “I by no means have all the answers, and I view this as a journey in which we are all able to learn from each other for the betterment of our schools and our communities.”


If you are interested in learning more about how your school can attract and better serve Latino families, consider joining the eighth cohort of the Latino Enrollment Institute next summer! Applications will open November 15, 2018.

And if you are interested in learning more about the School Pastors’ Institute, or if you would like to nominate a pastor who you think might be interested in this program, please visit our website: ace.nd.edu/spi

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