Hispanics & Catholic schools

by Michael Sean Winters

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One demographic trend is going up at a breathtaking rate, while one institutional trend is declining at a similarly stunning rate. Latinos now constitute approximately forty percent of all Catholics in the U.S. and a whopping sixty percent of Catholics under the age of eighteen. Catholic schools have been shuttering at an alarming rate, from a high of 13,000 schools in the middle of the twentieth century to 6,568 today. And, the point at which those two trends intersect is alarmingly low: Only about 2.3 percent of the Hispanic school age population is enrolled in Catholic schools.

The numbers form the sobering frame for the picture of the Hispanic presence in the nation’s Catholic schools that is the subject of a new study, released yesterday, by Boston College. The report was co-authored by Professors Patricia Weitzel-O’Neil and Hosffman Ospino, and it follows on an earlier report from BC on the state of Hispanic ministry and parish life. Here is another sobering fact: Hispanic graduation rates from public schools are lower than the rates for all other ethnic demographics. Catholic schools will never be able to serve all Hispanic children, but can they be a beacon for quality education? And, if we do not address the lack of Latino children in Catholic schools, where will we find the ecclesial Hispanic leaders that the Church already needs desperately? There are many Church leaders who are not the product of parochial schools to be sure, but there is a critical mass of intellectual leadership in the Church that has resulted from the Church’s commitment to education.

“Catholic schools have proven to be an extraordinary resource for U.S. Catholics providing the best possible education and serving as great instruments to affirm the best of Catholic identity,” Professor Ospino told me. “We are at a time in which the number of school-age Catholics is larger than ever, and most of these young Catholics (about 60%) are Hispanic. The core question that we raise in this report is whether Catholic schools have made the necessary adjustments to serve the new generation of U.S. Catholics, particularly Hispanic families and their children. Some have; most have not.”

The authors acknowledge that there is no going back to the nostalgically imagined past. “More than imagining a return to a past that cannot be replicated or stretching resources to meet unrealistic expectations, it is time to imagine how to position Catholic schools to effectively serve the new Catholic populations in the United States,” they write and it is this imagining that they set out to do.

The Boston College survey found regional variations, as is to be expected. For example, 28 percent of the Catholic school principals in the West are fluent in Spanish, compared to 8 percent in the Midwest and 11 percent in the East. While a slight majority of principals reported attending professional seminars or conferences on Hispanic culture, only 23 percent received formal training on cultural competency for Hispanic culture and even fewer, 17 percent, had received training in Hispanic theology or ministry. Here, clearly, is a place to start: Leadership can ignite initiatives throughout a school and our schools leaders must be handed the matches to light the fire. Schools in which principals had received formal training in cultural competency for Latinos were significantly more likely to have schools that share prayers in both English and Spanish, include Spanish language and music in liturgies, display culturally diverse signs, and otherwise create a more inclusive school environment. It was heartening to learn that 14 percent of principals participating in the survey are themselves Hispanic. Clearly, some highly educated Latino leaders see the value of pursuing a career in Catholic education.

One of the models of Catholic education the report examines in some detail is itself a product of a Boston College effort, known as the “Two-Way Immersion Network for Catholic Schools” or “TWIN-CS.” These schools – there are now 17 in the network – are intentionally intercultural, setting cross-cultural appreciation and bilingualism as explicit goals alongside academic excellence. The Catholic essence is contained in a mission to “reflect the values of Catholic social teaching, emphasizing human dignity, the common good, and a preferential option for the marginalized.” Like Notre Dame’s ACE academies, these schools are not only providing excellent educations today, but are experimenting with educational approaches that could be used in other schools to significant beneficial effect, not least for those Hispanic children, and the number is growing, whose first language is English, and who risk being disconnected from the family’s cultural and linguistic roots.

“The data collected through this important study revealed that schools that adjust structures and embrace practices to intentionally engage Hispanic families, their cultures, and their religious traditions, are schools that seem to be more attractive to these families,” says Ospino. “It makes sense. Who would want to send one’s child to a place where one’s culture and traditions are not embraced and respected?”

The section of the report on students and their families begins with depressing data. 62 percent of Hispanic children live in low-income families, a third live in poverty and one-in-eight live in deep poverty. Yet fifty-eight percent lived with married parents and 59 percent eat home-cooked meals with their families seven times a week, higher than the national average. And 87 percent speak only English at home or speak English very well. Whatever ghettoes exist are less linguistic than socio-economic. Noting the importance of familial ties in Latino cultures, and the fact that Catholic schools are historically supportive of family life, the report concludes, “That Catholic schools and Hispanics coincide in the affirmation of the familial bond is not an accident. It is the starting point of a relationship that deserves to be affirmed.”

Additional sections of the report look at stewardship dynamics, including fundraising and school governance, and at the relationship between schools and parishes in Hispanic communities. A final section identifies pressing issues. Overall, the picture painted is one of great possibility and potential, but only if there is determined leadership to bring together the resources the Church already possesses with the needs that are emerging. “Many leaders in the life of the Church in the United States say that they would like to see more Hispanic families and their children benefit from Catholic schools,” says Ospino. “However, our study reveals that offices, at the diocesan, parish, and school levels seem to be immersed in a silo mentality that persistently prevents them from sharing efforts and resources to make that goal come true. That silo mentality must be broken apart. It is urgent to build bridges among diocesan offices of Catholic schools and offices of Hispanic ministry or multicultural ministries; bridges among Catholic schools and parishes with Hispanic ministry. Common projects and strong communication among these entities will lead to a better engagement of Hispanic families.” This report, then, is a wake up call for the leaders of the Church, clerical and lay, to attend to the next generation of Catholics with some of the skills and structures that have served the Church in this country so well in the past, with intensive and intentional efforts to make our schools a better fit for that next generation of Catholics. It is a large task, but our friends at Boston College have given us all a map.

Here is a link to the full report.











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