When Angela Ávila was a young girl in her native El Salvador, she did not grow up with riches or luxuries. Her home was modest, her upbringing typical of her humble Central American community.
But there is one special memory that still stands out for Ms. Ávila, today a wife, mother of two grown daughters and grandmother of four: “I had the opportunity to go to Catholic school. I’ve always known that I wanted that for my children and grandchildren. I never doubted that was the right path for them.”
That is why Ms. Ávila—with kind, smiling eyes, a gentle, soft-spoken manner and short, salt-and-pepper (mostly pepper) curls—is now seated at a small dinette table in the bustling, overflowing school kitchen of Immaculate Conception Elementary near downtown Los Angeles near the end of lunch in mid-January.
All four of her grandkids—from pre-K to seventh grade—are currently enrolled at Immaculate Conception. In exchange for reduced tuition, she volunteers the entire school day, Monday through Friday, helping out in the cafeteria and anywhere else across the school.
Unfortunately, Catholic education is not a reality for many Latino families across the United States, who often view it as something beyond reach.
For Ms. Ávila, the importance of a Catholic education is beyond measure, in every possible regard, including “fewer students in each classroom, more attention from teachers and more emphasis on the overall well-being of each student.”
“For me, this school has been the ultimate, especially because my grandchildren have certain difficulties and special needs [including ADHD, a congenital heart defect, depression and high blood pressure]. The assistance I have received here has been,” she paused, briefly emotional, before continuing, “beyond my expectations. Everything they have done for these children—I don’t think any public school would have compared. I could never repay them for everything.”
During the interview, Ms. Ávila’s granddaughter Halley glided into the kitchen and immediately found her way into her grandmother’s embrace for a quick visit before returning to her first-grade class. While leaning back and snuggling against Ms. Ávila, the wide-eyed 7-year-old with golden brown hair shyly answered questions about her favorite school subject (science, especially learning why snow is white).
“I really like it here,” Halley quietly said of her school. Asked what makes her grandmother special, her shy smile widened, and she sat up a little straighter. “She helps me with my homework when I need it and she also plays with me.”
The situation Ms. Ávila and her family are in works well for them, allowing them to prioritize their values without breaking the bank. But Catholic education is not part of the lives of many Latino Catholic families across the United States, who, whether because of finances, misconceptions or geography, often view it as something beyond their reach.
Of the estimated 14.5 million school-age Catholic children in the United States, about eight million (or 55 percent) are Latino. The majority reside in the southern and western regions of the country.
Despite this significant—and still growing—number, only 4 percent of all school-age Latino Catholic children are enrolled in Catholic schools. Increasing enrollment of Latino students in Catholic schools could prove beneficial to both the schools and the students in ways that go far beyond the numbers.
U.S. Latinos and Catholic Education
The Latino population in the United States reached nearly 58 million in 2016 and has been the principal driver of U.S. demographic growth, accounting for half the nation’s population growth since 2000, according to the Pew Research Center.
In addition, U.S. Latinos are the youngest of the nation’s racial/ethnic groups. In fact, current trends show that by 2050 the child population in the United States will be about 32 percent Latino. According to 2016 data from kidsdata.org, in California, Latinos are already the largest racial/ethnic group among children, accounting for 51 percent of all children under 18.
Overall Latino enrollment in Catholic schools across the U.S. has been remained far behind shifting demographics.
Despite this steady upward trend, overall Latino enrollment in Catholic schools across the United States has remained far behind shifting demographics, according to Hosffman Ospino, associate professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College. Seen in the context of the entire student population in Catholic schools across the country, the demographic breakdown appears somewhat rosier. According to a 2015-16 statistical report on schools, enrollment and staff by the National Catholic Educational Association, 20.7 percent of students in Catholic grade schools and high schools are members of racial minorities and 16.8 percent are Latino.
But given the overall number of school-age Catholic Latino children in the United States, why do they remain underrepresented in Catholic schools? “If you crafted a list of 25 reasons...the answer would be all of the above—and more,” Mr. Ospino said. “One of the many reasons has to do with the sheer size of the population. There are eight million school-age Hispanic Catholic children in the United States. However, Catholic schools are only enrolling 1.9 million children [overall]. We simply do not have the capacity to educate all the Hispanic Catholic children in this country.... In a sense, we need to come to terms with that fact.”
Geographic factors play a significant role. Close to 70 percent of Catholic schools in the country are located in the Northeast and Midwest, but most of the Latino children are in the South and the West. The church needs to engage in a regional approach to better address this population, according to Mr. Ospino. “In regions and dioceses where fewer Latino families reside, parishes and schools need to make even more of a concerted effort to understand the barriers that keep families from seeking Catholic education,” he said.
Among newer immigrant Latino families, societal norms regarding Catholic education in their countries of origin often help shape long-lasting impressions. “When you look at the immigrant population in the U.S., particularly from Latin America...many see private schools as something only for the wealthy, because that’s [the way it was in their native countries],” Mr. Ospino explained. “So they come to this country, they see Catholic schools, and it just doesn’t click. They just don’t see that as an option for them.” But that may be starting to change.
‘We Pass the Faith Onto You’
The entire student body at Queen of Peace grammar school, around 240 students, made a circle around the Rev. Timothy Seavey after Mass in January. They gathered to pray the rosary together during Catholic Schools Week.
“We pass the faith onto you, and you in turn pass it on to the next generation,” Father Seavey said to the students. “How good it is to be able to share our faith at our school!”
For decades, Queen of Peace in Mesa, Ariz., has been a vibrant parish. There is standing-room only at all three Spanish-language Masses, and the congregation includes immigrants from countries like Mexico, El Salvador and Peru. After Mass, parishioners share tacos, empanadas and traditional Mexican sweet pastries on their way to the parking lot.
“You have to build relationships. If parents don’t believe you’re there for them, then you won’t be successful.”
But in the past, the school struggled with enrollment. A big reason was affordability, according to Renée Baeza, the school’s principal. But recently the school has not only grown—it is financially stable. “We’re no longer in the red,” Ms. Baeza said, noting that many tuition dollars come through scholarships and school tuition organizations. These nonprofits allow residents of Arizona and 17 other states to redirect their tax dollars to help students attending private schools.
Ms. Baeza said families are required to apply for at least five needs-based scholarships when enrolling. That has led to half the students having their education fully funded. Another 28 percent have three-fourths of their tuition covered. More than 90 percent of the students receive some kind of assistance.
But increasing enrollment goes beyond the scholarships, Ms. Baeza said. “You have to build relationships,” she said. “If parents don’t believe you’re there for them, then you won’t be successful.” Parents play an integral role at the school, volunteering and coaching sports. The seventh and eighth grade boys won a diocesan Catholic Youth Athletics Association tournament recently.
Ms. Baeza tells her teachers, “[The students] have to see you smile.” During her talks with parents, she tells them how she felt on the first day she “got paid to go to Mass” as a Catholic school principal. “Some parents are sold on Catholic education because the sacraments are included,” she laughed. “They like not having to bring them somewhere else after school!”
About 95 percent of students at Queen of Peace are Latino and six out of 10 of their teachers are Latino and speak Spanish. Ms. Baeza said it helps when the faculty reflects the demographics of the student population.
Two eighth graders, Stacey Becerra and Alexa Cruz, stopped by their principal’s office after the rosary. Both students switched from a local public school to Catholic education two years ago. “My mom thought it was better for me to learn about God and have a stronger faith,” Stacey said. The sixth grader Anthony López and seventh grader Luis de la Cruz joined the girls moments later. Both of them also noted the importance of learning about the faith. All four students were born in the United States but have parents who were born in Mexico.
“What do you like most about Catholic Schools Week?” Ms. Baeza asked.
“The student-teacher volleyball game,” Anthony said.
“You guys are going to lose again!” Ms. Baeza quipped.
The Cultural Component
The sort of community formed at Queen of Peace does not happen overnight. Catholic schools must make a deliberate effort to work to break down the many barriers that Latinos face when considering a Catholic education. One way to do that is for schools to be intentional about dispelling misconceptions about these barriers, said Sister John Mary Fleming, a Dominican sister who is the executive director for Catholic Education at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Schools can do a better job providing information about tuition programs, scholarships, tax credits and a variety of other financial support systems” to Latino families, she said. According to the N.C.E.A., approximately 94 percent of elementary schools and 97 percent of secondary schools have some form of tuition assistance. But many families are unaware of this opportunity and consider Catholic schools unaffordable.
“We need principals and teachers who understand that the church is a culturally diverse reality in this country.”
The Rev. Joseph V. Corpora, a Holy Cross priest who is the director of university-school partnerships in the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame, said many people who come from Latin America “grew up believing that Catholic schools were only for the uber-wealthy.” Yet he notes that families are looking for more than just the most affordable option for their children’s education.
“We can talk about many funding formulas that will make Catholic schools more attractive to Latinos. But if there’s no relationships to start with, no investment in the community, they simply won’t [seek Catholic education],” Father Corpora said.
According to Sister Dale McDonald, a Presentation sister who is director of public policy and educational research for the N.C.E.A., the underlying challenge is not only financial but cultural, and recommends “being more culturally welcoming” to Latino Catholic families in our parish communities.
Becoming more culturally sensitive is a win-win, because through the cultural exchange of “opinions, ideas, [different] ways of being in community, everybody grows,” Sister McDonald said. But achieving this requires dedication across the school community, including teachers, principal, students and school families, she said.
Mr. Ospino, echoing Sister McDonald, said creating a more welcoming community “requires a major commitment to go into communities, into parishes, engaging people in conversation,” he said.
“We need principals and teachers who understand that the church is a culturally diverse reality in this country,” he said. “We need leaders who are passionate about this, who do not see diversity as a threat but as an opportunity. These people can be the pioneers who are thinking outside of the box...people who are creative in trying to figure out good business models for Catholic schools, people who are actively attracting Hispanic families to the Catholic schools and who are not afraid of the Spanish language, who are not afraid of the Hispanic culture, who are not caught up in some of the biases they have inherited.”
Tools for Inclusiveness
For specific tools for everyday pioneers, Sister Fleming suggests reviewing “The Catholic School Principal’s Guide,” by the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education. The 20-page booklet offers 30 proven strategies to help boost Latino enrollment in Catholic schools. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mailed copies of the booklet to all Catholic school superintendents across the country last May. Suggestions include researching community demographics, cultivating relationships within a parish community, educating parish families, attending Spanish-language Masses and adapting classroom culture and management styles for a diverse community.
Especially for Catholic schools without Latino members in the administration, “pastors and principals need assistance in helping to invite and welcome [Latino] families into the schools,” said Sister Fleming. “[It’s about] developing an openness, building relationships. These are all very concrete actions schools can take to invite and make families aware of Catholic education.”
For a more in-depth approach, Notre Dame offers the Latino Enrollment Institute, a four-day course that coaches participants on different tactics for increasing Latino representation in Catholic schools. In addition, a follow-up coach—typically someone who has been successful increasing Latino enrollment at their own school—consults with participants for up to one year afterward.
According to Father Corpora, the success rate has been steady. Over the past six years, approximately 300 schools have participated, and the average enrollment increase of Latino students has been about 29 percent among them. Nationally, the overall increase has been 1 to 2 percent.
Success with ‘Madrinas’ and More
Unlike other areas of the world, the history of Catholic education in the United States “is kind of unique,” part missionary in nature, said Kevin Baxter, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“We’ve always been in urban communities [welcoming] newly arrived immigrants,” he noted. “One-hundred some-odd years ago they were Irish, Italian, Polish, German; and now they’re Latino and Asian and African. I think that’s a really important piece about American Catholic schools that we always have to communicate to a broad audience, but especially to those newer immigrants.”
“One-hundred some-odd years ago they were Irish, Italian, Polish, German; and now they’re Latino and Asian and African."
In the Los Angeles Archdiocese—which encompasses Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties—Catholics schools do not face the same shortage of Latino students, aided in large part by the local demographics. In fact, the average Latino child population across the three counties is about 60 percent.
The most recent local Catholic school census last fall reflects that. Across the 215 archdiocesan K-8 Catholic schools, the student body was 54 percent Latino, 20 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 4 percent African-American.
Nonetheless, the archdiocesan Department of Catholic Schools does not take Latino or any other minority enrollment for granted, according to Mr. Baxter.
“Our numbers obviously reflect our archdiocese, they reflect our city...but we recognize that we can still do more,” he said. “We do outreach [to Latino and other minority populations], and we’re very proud of that.”
Mr. Baxter said they have participated in the Latino Enrollment Institute and embrace many of its strategies, including the madrinas, or “godmothers,” program, in which Latina women who already have children enrolled in Catholic school reach out to Latino families in the parish community and follow up with families who stop by the parish office or school to inquire about the Catholic school.
“The madrina can answer questions and help families through the process,” Father Corpora said. “Enrolling in Catholic school can be daunting—too much paperwork, too many questions, things aren’t in Spanish. The madrina helps, but what’s really happening is the madrina is establishing a relationship and trust.”
According to Mr. Baxter, “Outreach has to be relational and personal. The madrinas program helps us do that in many of our schools.”
For María Esparza, a gregarious mother and grandmother—sporting pulled-up, onyx black hair, a straightforward manner and an easy smile with an infectious laugh—having been connected with a madrina many years back could have made a world of difference in her family, especially for her now-grown son, Omar.
“When he was a boy, I was interested in sending my son to a Catholic school in Montebello, but I spoke with a neighbor who told me, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that, because to attend Catholic school the students have to be perfectly fluent in English or they won’t accept them, and the parents, too,’” Ms. Esparza said recently, scoffing slightly at the memory, while sitting in the school kitchen where she works at Immaculate Conception. “And, unfortunately, I believed her.”
“Today I tell people that I recommend Catholic school for everybody, and I advise them to ignore any gossip and instead to ask questions—to ask people who know the real answers.”
To make matters worse, that neighbor was not the only naysayer she encountered. Several people filled Ms. Esparza’s ears with similar misconceptions.“Now I realize how gullible I was to...give up so easily,” she said. Looking back at her son’s public school years, Ms. Esparza said she believes a persistent lack of guidance and encouragement contributed to grave disinterest in his studies and did little to fuel any plans for his future. Eventually, he dropped out of high school.
“Today I tell people that I recommend Catholic school for everybody,” continued Ms. Esparza, “and I advise them to ignore any gossip and instead to ask questions—to ask people who know the real answers.”
Catholic Schools and the Future Church
Ethnic and racial diversity in Catholic schools creates a student body that reflects the multicultural church in the United States—a church that continues to be increasingly Latino and Spanish-speaking, Mr. Ospino said.
“Do we want a strong church? Then let’s educate Hispanic children now and give them the best possible tools, so they can be the next generation...of teachers, theologians and college presidents,” he said. “Catholic schools give students the opportunity to imagine the world in a much better way, with the values of the Gospel. I want a piece of that for the next generation of Hispanic children, because, in many ways, the future of the Catholic Church is in their hands.”
“Catholic schools give students the opportunity to imagine the world in a much better way, with the values of the Gospel."
Father Corpora concurred. “I never tire of telling families, ‘Catholic schools open the world to your children—and they keep the faith,’” he said. “Latino students who go to Catholic schools wind up being Catholic. And every single abuela [grandmother] I know laments the loss of the Catholic faith in one or more of her grandchildren.”
Ms. Esparza understands this feeling all too well. Although her now 37-year-old son Omar is doing fine today as an adult and parent—working hard at a warehouse to help support his family, including two sons enrolled at Bishop Mora Salesian High School—nurturing his own Catholic faith has never been a priority.
By contrast, the opposite is true for his much younger sister, Fatima. Ms. Esparza’s daughter, who is 17 years younger than her sibling, did have the opportunity to attend Catholic school. By the time her daughter was ready for kindergarten, Ms. Esparza had acquired the facts about Catholic education and, most important, she had finally learned to tune out the cynics.
“Going to Catholic school deeply ingrained her faith and love of God,” Ms. Esparza said. “Today my daughter never misses Mass. Her faith is an important part of her life, and it’s important to me, too. I’m just so grateful.”