The Spirit Guides Them: LEI Inspires Remarkable Growth at Urban Cincinnati Catholic School
When Jenny O’Brien first became principal of Holy Family School six years ago, she noticed immediately that there were significant changes that needed to be made. One of the most glaring problems was that Latinos, who were becoming a large part of the community surrounding Holy Family Church, did not feel welcomed by the parish community. Furthermore, the student body at the school, at an all-time low, did not reflect the new demographics because there was little attempt to reach this burgeoning community of Latino families, most of whom had school-aged children. In 2010 the school was only six percent Latino, or nine of the 165 students. Jenny O’Brien saw this and sought to change it.
Jenny knew that this change would not come quickly nor easily. Change is a process—an oftentimes difficult and exhausting one that Jenny knew must be undertaken for the good of the school, the Latino community, and most importantly the mission and vision of Jesus’ Church. With the support of a new pastor, Jenny made sure the welcome mat was put out front and center for all God’s people.
Believing that change would be easier to bear if it came incrementally, Jenny wisely set out to gradually break down any barriers between the school and its surrounding Latino communities. “We started with the basics – a friendly smile, a welcoming spirit, learning a few words in Spanish, etc. We would “ooh” and “ahh” over all the children. Next, we posted signs in English and Spanish stating we were enrolling students for the next school year.”
From there, the Holy Family staff worked to ensure that Spanish-speaking families would feel the school was dedicated to communicating with them, that they were a part of the larger family. Most information sent home to parents was now in both English and Spanish. Translators were made available for conferences and school events. Jenny also knew it would be vital for all her staff to become experts in working with students for whom English is a second language. “I hand selected key staff members to send to various types of professional development on how to work with ESL students and families. From there, these teachers became cheerleaders for our Latino students and their families.”
Attending the Alliance for Catholic Education’s Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) also played a large role in Holy Family’s turn around. “The LEI was an answered prayer,” Jenny recalls. The conference opened their eyes to a world that Jenny and her staff wanted to get to know more intimately, and they were shown the importance of faith to the Latino community. “Because of that, my staff found themselves going out into various neighborhoods where we knew our families were worshipping so as to share information about our school with them. We hoped that they would not only join our school, but also choose to worship with us as well.” A great form of evangelization dear to Pope Francis’ heart was taking root.
The LEI assigns each school a mentor principal and Yvonne Schwab, Jenny’s mentor, was a major influence on what Holy Family was to become. Jenny was able to tour Yvonne’s school and Yvonne was able to share many insights about the Latino community that her school serves. “It helped open my eyes to the plight of the Latino families. Yvonne shared things we had not dealt with until this year, such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.” Her mentor was also able to show Jenny the various changes that she had made to achieve the sense of family so vital to her Latino students and which Jenny implemented at Holy Family. And in a wonderful twist of fate, Kristen deVault, one of Yvonne’s teachers, was moving to Cincinnati and Kristen accepted an opening at Holy Family, where she is currently the ESL instructor.
The work that Jenny and the entire Holy Family staff and community put into reforming the school paid huge dividends. Enrollment is up from 165 total students just six years ago, to 227 students today, an increase of 38 percent. And Latino enrollment is up from just nine students in 2010, to 80 students in 2016, a remarkable increase of nearly 800 percent.
All the little things that Holy Family did to become a welcoming school for Latino families made an incredible difference in the lives of the children and families it serves. In the end, though, Jenny believes that the number one reason Latino families now feel at home at Holy Family – and most importantly, why they stay – is because of the school community’s welcoming spirit, a “Welcome” mat still implanted in each member’s heart. It is what attracts families of all backgrounds to the school and what hooks them once they are a part of the community. “We really do love each and every one of our families,” says Jenny. “And our hearts go out in a special way to our Latino families because of their plight. Their faith is so amazing and a testament to all of us.”
With that welcoming Spirit guiding them, there is no doubt that Holy Family Catholic School will continue to prosper and give more and more children the gift of a Catholic education.