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December 20, 2009

Catholic schools and Latinos: a match made in heaven? ND study looks at ways to increase Latino enrollment

By Michelle Martin


Catholic schools and Latino students in the United States need each other.

Without more Latino students, Catholic schools as they have been known will continue to disappear from American urban areas, and Latino students will likely continue to lag behind their peers in marks of educational achievement, such as high school graduation rates and college attendance.

That’s the conclusion of a University of Notre Dame task-force report released Dec. 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The task-force report kicks off a campaign aimed at enrolling a million more Latino students in Catholic schools by 2020.

“To Nurture the Soul of a Nation: Latino Families, Catholic Schools, and Educational Opportunity” found that more than 1,400 Catholic schools have closed since 2000, and those that remain have more than 690,000 empty seats.

But those same schools have a demonstrated ability to raise the academic achievement of their students, especially those whose families are minorities or face economic challenges.

At the same time, only 53 percent of Latino students nationwide graduate from high school in four years, 16 percent of Latino 18-year-olds are considered college-ready and a quarter of Latinos 18 to 24 years old enroll in college.

The numbers are familiar in the Archdiocese of Chicago, although schools here have a slightly better track record at attracting and serving Latino students, said Dominican Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, the archdiocesan superintendent of schools.

Not enough Latinos

While only about 3 percent of Latino students nationally are enrolled in Catholic schools, schools in the archdiocese serve more than 4 percent of Latino students. But overall, about 40 percent of 2.3 million Catholics in the archdiocese identify themselves as Latino or Hispanic; only 18 percent of Catholic-school students fall into that category, Sister Mary Paul said.

To help increase the number of Latino students, the Archdiocese of Chicago will be one of five pilot dioceses to work with Notre Dame this spring. People from all schools will be invited to learn more about the task-force report and its recommendations, and 40 schools will be selected for more intensive work with Holy Cross Father Joseph Corpora, director of University-School Partnerships for Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education and a task force cochair.

Cost, other factors

The task force, which includes several members with ties to the Archdiocese of Chicago, looked at five schools in the archdiocese as case studies and analyzed several reasons that many Latino families do not choose Catholic schools for their children. Topping the parents’ reasons is the cost of a Catholic education.

But researchers found that even more important is a lack of information about Catholic education.

Other factors include cultural differences; while Catholic schools in the United States traditionally served working-class immigrant communities, Catholic schools in Latin America and particularly Mexico are seen as elite — and expensive — private schools for the rich. However, when the U.S. model of Catholic education was developed, nearly all those schools were staffed and operated by sisters who came from the communities in which they served. That’s not so for most Catholic schools in Latino communities today.

One exception would be Immaculate Conception School (South Exchange), where former pastor Father Thomas Enright invited the Daughters of Mary of Guadalupe to help staff the school he reopened in 2003. The sisters work alongside U.S.-born sisters and lay staff, and are active in the parish.


Schools in Latino communities must transform themselves into institutions that are part and parcel of their neighborhoods by reaching out to families, developing connections with community leaders and making sure they are responsive to the needs of Latino families.

“Welcoming” Latino families is not enough, as it sets up a dynamic of “us and them,” in which the Latino families are the “them.” Instead, the schools and parishes must find ways for Latino families to buy into and take ownership in the schools.

“This isn’t rocket science,” said Holy Cross Father Tim Scully, the director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives. “And it doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money.”

For example, schools in Latino communities must make sure that they have someone in the front office who speaks Spanish, and that materials for parents are available in Spanish as well as English, Scully said.

Most Catholic schools in the archdiocese that serve largely Hispanic or Latino communities have taken such steps, Sister Mary Paul said, and more are learning with ongoing efforts from the Office for Catholic Schools and the Big Shoulders Fund. For example, the Academy of Our Lady in Waukegan has seen its enrollment grow as it has taken steps to be more visible in Waukegan’s Latino community.

The results for the students are huge, Sister Mary Paul said.

“You can take a child in a minority neighborhood who hasn’t gone to a Catholic grammar school, and the chance that child will graduate from high school is 38 percent,” she said. “If that child goes to a Catholic grammar school, the chance he will graduate from high school — wherever that child goes to high school — is 95 percent. And if that child goes to a Catholic high school, there is an 88 to 98 percent he will go to college. We do a really nice job. But we have to be creative and flexible and understand people’s deepest values for their children.

“This is a huge population for us,” said Sister Mary Paul, “because they are Catholic.”

To read the complete report online, visit