Schools explore how to better service Hispanic families
By: By Jennifer Willems
Seventy percent of practicing Catholics under the age of 35 are Hispanic, and Latinos represent the fast growing school-age population in the country. Why is it, then, that only 3 percent of those children attend Catholic schools?
Principals, pastors, teachers and education commission members from Catholic schools around the Diocese of Peoria recently spent the morning exploring that question with the help of Father Joseph Corpora, CSC. An educator, former campus minister and pastor at parishes in Oregon and Arizona, he currently serves as director of University-School Partnerships for the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education.
Providing the foundation for his discussion at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria were findings from “To Nurture the Soul of a Nation: Latino Families, Catholic Schools, and Educational Opportunity.” The report by the Notre Dame Task Force on the Participation of Latino Children and Families in Catholic Schools” was published Dec. 12, 2009.
“I think this is the first request we had,” Father Corpora said, noting that Brother William Dygert, CSC, superintendent of diocesan schools, called him even before the report was out.
What the task force members found in the yearlong study was that there are four “gaps” that account for the low enrollment figures: financial, information, culture and leadership, he said.
“There’s no doubt that rising costs are part of the picture,” Father Corpora said, but the report showed that only 35 percent of Latino families cited this as a reason for not sending their children to Catholic schools.
NOT THEIR EXPERIENCE
What plays a larger role is their lack of experience with Catholic schools and information that is not presented in a helpful way, the priest told them.
“We assume that Hispanics know how great our schools are. They don’t,” Father Corpora said.
“In Mexico they don’t have parish schools,” he explained. “It doesn’t occur to them what a Catholic school is. It’s not even a possibility — they don’t know it’s there.”
Making things more difficult is that many schools are not as culturally responsive as they could be, the report found. Father Corpora said this is not because they don’t want to, but may not know how or are held back by fear.
“Culture is such a huge part of our lives. It’s never not at work,” he said. “It runs very deep.”
For example, while American culture thrives on paperwork and deadlines, these are not valued in Latino culture, according to Father Corpora. He said principals sending home a packet of forms with a firm due date will often be frustrated.
Relationship is a greater priority, so he suggested pairing new Latino families with madrinas or godmothers — women who have made the transition and can walk the newcomers through the school year, help them fill out forms and tell them about upcoming events.
“That’s the way to do it,” Father Corpora said. “People telling people.”
MAKING AN INVESTMENT
If relationship is important, then hospitality is vital, he said. That starts with a smile and a warm greeting in the school office and extends to the pastor, who must be on hand to greet each new family, even it’s only for a few minutes.
“When I was a pastor I would do traffic duty one morning a week,” Father Corpora said. “I would do playground duty one day a week. I know pastors are overwhelmed but — and this is my bias — you can’t make a better investment in the church.”
Pastors and school officials would also benefit from having “cultural mentors” who can explain why certain things are done or not done, and identify obstacles to enrolling Latino children. For example, is there an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the school or classroom?
“Imagery is so important,” Father Corpora said. “We have to have the cultural responsiveness to know that this evokes something in our families.”
When all is said and done, opening the doors to Hispanic families means pastors and principals cannot do business as usual, he told them.
“The church in the inner city can be revitalized by Latinos and the same is true with our schools,” Father Corpora said. “In the end we will be better for it.”
The goal of the Notre Dame task force goal is to double the percentage of Latinos attending Catholic schools from 3 percent to 6 percent by 2020. That means bumping the national enrollment from 290,000 to more than 1 million Hispanic students.
That could create the need for as many as 200 new Catholic schools and for the same number of closed schools to open again, Father Corpora explained.
“Luckily we had a leader who fed 5,000 people with two loaves of bread and five fish,” he said with a smile.