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Welcoming Latino Families: More Than Just Speaking Spanish

By Kenna Arana

RCS_Our Lady of Guadalupe

Monica Steinmetz, the director of enrollment and admissions for Rochester (Minnesota) Catholic Schools, was startled when she first heard the numbers.

At 62.1 million, the Latino population represents the largest and youngest ethnic minority population in the United States, and more than half of all children in the U.S. under 18 are Latino. They have contributed 71 percent of the growth of the Catholic Church in the U.S. since 1960 and represent 35 percent of all practicing Catholic parishioners in America.

“The statistics were mind-boggling to me,” Steinmetz said.

Latino students who attend Catholic schools are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 2.5 times more likely to graduate from college.

She learned about these trends when she attended the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) at the University of Notre Dame in June 2021. “To hear the statistics and then to hear the successes that other schools have had with the LEI and bringing it alive in their schools was incredible,” she said.

Only 4 percent of Latino Catholic children are enrolled in Catholic schools. If between 5 percent and 10 percent of all U.S. Catholic Latino children enrolled, another Catholic school would never need to close.

The heart of the LEI is to ensure that all Latino children benefit fully from the advantages of a Catholic education. More importantly, this initiative believes that Catholic schools and the Church stand to be transformed by Latino families and the gifts they bring to our communities.

Steinmetz’s takeaway from the LEI? “Get Fr. Joe [Corpora, CSC] and Katy Lichon to Rochester Catholic Schools for professional development!” Steinmetz said with a laugh. “I returned to the office feeling energized and wanting to put together a team.”

At the time, Rochester Catholic Schools was in the midst of a leadership transition. In August 2021, Annemarie Vega entered her role as president, and Steinmetz learned that she also had experience with the LEI and was committed to continuing the diocese’s participation. “We have the LEI written into our strategic plan,” Steinmetz said. “We sent three participants to the 2022 summer conference and we’re hoping to send more this upcoming summer.”


Monica Steinmetz (left) in the photo on the left at a Rochester Catholic Schools "Showcase of Schools" event. In the photo on the right, the team from St. Francis of Assisi School in Rochester, MN, poses for a picture at the Latino Enrollment Institute, June 26-29, 2022. 

While evidence of substantial enrollment gains from LEI schools may be enticing, school culture interventions are also a critical component of the LEI approach. Steinmetz and her colleagues are seeing firsthand how important they are and over the past 18 months, they have focused on how they’re serving the Latino students and families who are already enrolled in their schools. 

Karina Velázquez Rowles, the admissions assistant for Rochester Catholic Schools, plays an instrumental role in making sure that Latino students and their families are both welcomed and well-served. Velázquez Rowles spends one day a week at St. Francis of Assisi School, which has the largest Latino population of the schools in the diocese. “I help with parent communication and translations, and I’m also bringing Latino culture to school events,” Velázquez Rowles says.

“Part of what Latino parents need is somebody that doesn’t just speak Spanish, but someone who understands their culture."

Velázquez Rowles created a Spanish Facebook page she uses to translate all of the content from the Rochester Catholic Schools page into Spanish. She serves as a translator at parent-teacher conferences, attends Spanish Masses to share enrollment and scholarship information with families, and she even got a phone to text with Spanish-speaking parents who she knows prefer text communication over email. At the same time, Velázquez Rowles knows that her role is about more than just speaking Spanish.

“Part of what Latino parents need is somebody that doesn’t just speak Spanish, but someone who understands their culture,” Velázquez Rowles says. “When I was hired in June, we created a calendar that included Latino festivities. We started with Hispanic Heritage Month and then we hosted a Day of the Dead contest. Students in our high schools created ofrendas and we had Latino parents and Fr. Luis Vargas — who is from Colombia — judge the ofrendas.”


Velazquez Rowles with family and ofrenda
Karina Velázquez Rowles in the photo on the left visiting with a family at an event. In the photo on the right is an ofrenda that the students created for the Day of the Dead.

The ofrenda contest brought about a special moment of connection between Rochester Catholic Schools staff and families. “After the contest, one of the parent judges ran up to my car window and asked, ‘You’re coming to my house, right?’” Steinmetz recalls. “She had prepared a meal for us, and we all went over to her house. It was very humbling for me to go into the home of one of our families, and it made me think much more about the importance of home visits as an educator.”

For the recent Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bishop Robert Barron celebrated Mass and Velázquez Rowles gave each school in the diocese a framed Our Lady of Guadalupe that she brought back from a recent visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. “We blessed them and every student brought a flower to celebrate,” Velázquez Rowles says.

Our Lady of Guadalupe images

Through the moments of joy and the moments of struggle, it’s the students and their families that motivate Steinmetz and Velázquez Rowles to keep working. “One mom that I work with recently had two kids graduate from Lourdes High School, and she just put her younger kids in one of our elementary schools,” Velázquez Rowles says. “She cleans houses and she couldn’t afford to pay for tuition for all of them. She said to me, ‘If I could do it again, I would. I’m super proud that my kids graduated from Rochester Catholic Schools.’”

Applications to join the 11th cohort of the Latino Enrollment Institute are open now. For more information about the Latino Enrollment Institute, visit the LEI website. Acceptances are offered on a rolling basis and space is limited, so interested schools are encouraged to apply early. Applications must be received no later than April 1, 2023 and all schools will be notified of acceptance by April 15th.