Adopting dual-language programs is one way parish schools adapt for Latino students, the new Catholic majority

All Saints Catholic School in Richmond, Virginia, nearly closed after the economy crashed. It lost more than half of its enrollment in a two-year period and went on to operate with a deficit for three years in a row while its student population hovered at about 105, at less than half its capacity.

Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, seeing how many school-aged Latinos lived within the borders of the Richmond diocese and how many empty seats schools like All Saints had, spearheaded the launch of the Segura Initiative in 2010. The program removes much of the financial barrier to Catholic school enrollment for Latino students from very low-income Catholic families and has expanded their numbers in 27 of 29 diocesan schools.

Ken Soistman, president of All Saints school, was one of the first principals in the diocese to accept Segura students. And since then he has watched school enrollment steadily creep upward. During the 2013-14, All Saints had 114 students. Last year enrollment jumped to 167, this year it is 188, and next year, Soistman expects 205 students, about 25 percent of whom will be Latino.

"We're back operating in the black — with a bare-bones budget, but we're also paying back some of our deficit," Soistman said.

Many Catholic schools, elementary and secondary, all over the country have not had such a happy ending. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, in the decade between academic years 2004-2005 and 2014-2015, the number of Catholic school students declined by almost half a million. Nearly 1,700 schools closed or consolidated.

While there was a time when more than half of Catholic children went to Catholic schools, that is far from true today. And within the largest and fastest-growing Catholic school-aged population — Latinos — barely 3 percent are enrolled in such schools.

Many administrators long ignored this population in recruitment efforts or repurposed old strategies, changing only the target demographic. Others, though, like All Saints, have shaped their school cultures around the new students, celebrating new holidays, embracing language differences, and welcoming new staff members and volunteers who are Latino and speak Spanish.

Still other schools have gone yet one step further. They have shifted the way they deliver education to turn the Spanish that some of their students arrive speaking into an asset, rather than a deficit to teach away. Dual language programs, which create biliterate, bilingual and bicultural students have been shown to close the achievement gap between English language learners and their native English-speaking peers as well as improve the cognitive capacity of all students who participate, regardless of their language backgrounds.

"Catholic Schools in an Increasingly Hispanic Church" is the title of a forthcoming report co-authored by Hosffman Ospino, assistant professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, and Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, executive director of the college's Roche Center for Catholic Education. Their research is based on survey data from 656 schools in 130 dioceses and archdioceses across the country, providing perhaps the most accurate picture today of how Catholic schools are serving Latino families.

"It's not enough to increase the enrollment of the Hispanic students," Weitzel-O'Neill said. "What matters is to give them the absolute best environment in which to grow and prosper as the future leaders of our church, and that means taking into account all of those rich cultural characteristics they bring to the table that should be shared and should be celebrated."

While some schools are thinking about increasing Latino enrollment as a survival technique, many others in all corners of the country consider better recruitment an obligation of the church. Effectively educating Latinos prepares a new generation of Catholics and global citizens.

Rethinking schools

A wall by the gymnasium of the Archbishop Borders School in Baltimore is filled with class photos of graduating eighth graders. The smiling faces of the students provide a visual representation of the demographic change that has transformed the school in the last decade.

The Archbishop Borders School formed in 2002 as a merger of St. Elizabeth's and Our Lady of Pompeii. The former served a predominantly African American population and the latter, an even split between black and white families. Now, the small school has become a model for shaping instruction to serve Latinos, welcoming students with ties to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, and other Latin American countries, along with black students who make up one-third of the student body and whites who make up 8 percent.

The school offers dual language instruction for students in pre-K through fourth grade with half of their course content delivered in Spanish and half in English. This gives native speakers of each language the opportunity to reinforce their first languages while they learn a second.

Archbishop Borders School launched its dual language program in 2010 for students in pre-K for three-year-olds, expanding up through the older pre-K class and onto kindergarten and the higher grades as the original cohort of students aged. Former principal Cathy Marshall saw many of the newer Latino students losing their first language and developed the program to better serve them as well as prepare non-Spanish speaking students for a globalized world.

"I think that was the vision for us as a school — for us to become a light in the community that is a safe place for immigrants," said Kristina Collins, director of dual language programming. "We've had a lot of newcomer students come to us because it is a safe place where they can learn, but also where their culture, their language, is valued."

For native English speakers, dual language immersion programs give them an opportunity to develop academic fluency in written and spoken Spanish, the second most commonly spoken language in the world, after Mandarin.

In a third grade Spanish language class about a month into the school year, students sat at their desks while their teacher, Waydenia Nieves, went over new lists of Spanish words, one set for spelling, the other for vocabulary. Nieves was asking students to think in Spanish, and many students still needed prompting. For desamparado, Nieves wanted to hear a description defining the word, not simply the English translation, "helpless."

These students will learn Spanish as its own language, not simply a reflection of English. They will make a mental shift that many students who study second languages in more traditional formats never understand.

Nancy Salazar teaches kindergarten and pre-K for four-year-olds at Archbishop Borders School. Most of the students in her classroom speak English in conversations with their friends but dutifully respond to her in Spanish as she guides them through beginner language and math lessons. She said it generally takes about three years in a dual language program for students to shift in their conversations with each other.

Native English- and Spanish-speaking parents have sought out the dual language program at Archbishop Borders School, the only one in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The program serves families from all over Maryland, but primarily Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Hartford County.

Two of Yudy Salinas' granddaughters attend the school, having transferred specifically to join the dual language program. Givania Lagos and Sharday Salinas, both six years old, started kindergarten speaking English more than Spanish. Already, though, Salinas sees the girls strengthening their Spanish language skills, speaking it more consistently at home.

"That's why we don't want to leave here," Salinas said. "Because they can have both languages."

Archbishop Borders School is a member of the Two-Way Immersion Network for Catholic Schools run by the Barbara and Patrick Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College. Like other schools with dual language programs, Archbishop Borders can use the asset as a recruitment tool, fostering enrollment growth by creating a sought-after program. At the same time, they are making structural changes to Catholic education that acknowledge the future of the church.

Boston College's Ospino urges educators to stop talking about Latinos as simply immigrants, or as an invisible population separate from the wider pool of Catholics.

"Nearly half of the Catholic church is Hispanic; about 60 percent of Catholics under 18 are Hispanic," Ospino said. "There's not such a thing as the Catholic church and the Latino Catholic reality as separate dynamics. There's only one church."

Even in the Southwest, where many Catholic schools first opened to serve Latino communities on land that was Mexico before it was the United States, school leaders are discussing ways to do that even better. Dual language programs are a common focal point, and many schools moving in that direction get support from Boston College. The Madrinas model at Notre Dame also helps educators strengthen ties between schools and Latino families.

In Houston, where about 44 percent of the population is Latino, and 35 percent of Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston are Latino, Superintendent Julie Vogel sees serving Latino students to be an important role not only for the future of the church, but the future of the city. Latino students have consistently inferior educational outcomes than their white peers in public schools, creating potential capacity problems in cities like Houston.

"We're really cognizant of the long-term goal of making sure we have a highly educated workforce here — and I'm going to be biased — with a Catholic worldview," Vogel said.

Attracting Latino students

The cost of a Catholic school education is often cited as a reason so few Latino families choose to enroll their children in many parts of the country. That is a major barrier, but sometimes more so because of perception than reality. In Latin America, Catholic schools are schools of the elite. In the United States, though, Catholic schools have long served working-class, immigrant families. Of course Catholic school tuition is significantly more expensive now than it was in the past, in part because of the shift from a teaching workforce of underpaid sisters to one full of paid professionals. But many schools offer scholarships to make their programs affordable for families that need assistance. And new scholarship programs in parishes across the country specifically seek out Latino Catholics.

Partnerships that stretch from individual schools through parishes and the full diocese or archdiocese, like the Segura Initiative in Richmond, have been particularly successful at raising money for scholarships and finding students who need them.

All Saints Catholic School charges about $6,000 per year in tuition. Families participating in the Segura Initiative get money from the diocese, a parish sharing program, Virginia tax credits, and the school itself. In the end, they pay a small portion of the total tuition, a modest financial obligation that is manageable and keeps them invested in their child's education.

States like Florida and Indiana that have voucher programs virtually eliminate the financial barrier to Catholic school enrollment, letting low-income families take state dollars to their chosen school, whether it is public or private.

A large portion of students at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic School in the Archdiocese of Miami qualify for state vouchers, either because they come from low-income families or qualify for special education services. The voucher doesn't cover the full tuition cost at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, and the cost of tuition does not reach the actual cost of instruction, but state funding takes a large burden off of schools.

From there, Assistant Principal Cristina Perez says it's up to Catholic schools to make themselves competitive enough to attract students. Our Lady of the Holy Rosary offers a dual language program for two-, three- and four-year-olds in pre-K and plans to expand it to kindergarten next year and to the later grades as students get older. In Miami, a city dominated by Latinos, it would be a mistake to assume all children with Latino heritage speak Spanish fluently, especially with academic proficiency.

The dual language program at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary is considered a way to enhance the curriculum and improve instruction for all students, better positioning the school to compete — a strategy Archbishop Borders School is using in Baltimore and a handful of Catholic schools in San Antonio are using as they vie for students with a growing number of charter schools.

Perez said school leaders are implementing the program in manageable steps.

"We didn't just close in June and reopen as a completely bilingual school," Perez said, adding that grade-by-grade expansion offers more controlled growth. "It is something that we're sensitive to — to do it right and to do it well so that each year, when we do open up a new classroom that we're doing it right and we have the right resources and the educators in place to make sure that it is going to be a success."

Short of creating dual language programs, schools can, like All Saints, work to change the school culture by hiring bilingual teachers and support staff members, celebrating the traditions of diverse cultures, translating all official communication sent home, and paying for cultural competency training.

Soistman, the president of All Saints, said parents of all ethnic groups are represented on school committees; the school newsletter is printed in Spanish and English; morning prayers are sometimes done in Spanish; and an annual Hispanic heritage celebration draws people from across the school community, Latino and not. Teachers, too, are sharpening their language skills.

"A number of our teachers have been taking Spanish classes," Soistman said. "Even along that line we're subtly doing things. Our pre-K teacher, who has been here 20 years or so, is becoming semi-fluent in Spanish. Each teacher is trying to make that move."

After several years of growing enrollment, including among wealthier white families from the surrounding neighborhood who have begun enrolling in the diversifying school, Soistman believes the community is unified across their differences.

"We don't really look at it like, 'These are the Hispanics and these are the African Americans,'" Soistman said. "We're all just one family."

Moving the needle

The Notre Dame Task Force on the Participation of Latino Children and Families in Catholic Schools released a report in December 2009, outlining recommendations to increase the number of Latino students in Catholic schools from 290,000 to 1 million in a decade. That was supposed to include enrolling 480,000 students in existing schools and creating 230,000 new seats in new or reopened schools.

By the 2014-15 school year, Latino enrollment had not quite grown by 7,000 students, falling far short of the goal, halfway to the 10-year mark.

"More than anything, I think we have increased awareness," said Fr. Joseph V. Corpora, director of the Catholic School Advantage Campaign at Notre Dame University. There was a lot more preliminary work than expected as Corpora's team first had to convince church leaders that the goal of expanding access was critical. Now all eyes are on recruiting Latino students.

"Every superintendent is asking this question," Corpora said. "Some are asking it for survival — 'I'm going to lose my school if I don't do it' — and some are asking because it's the right thing to do."

Since 2012, the University of  Notre Dame has sponsored the Latino Enrollment Institute to train teachers and administrators in Catholic schools that have open seats and large Latino populations nearby. The institute provides support to schools, helping them attract and better serve Latino students and their families.

Holy Family Catholic School in the archdiocese of Cincinnati went from serving no Latino students to 63 in six years. From 2013-14 to 2014-15 alone, Latino enrollment jumped from 39 to 63 students, an increase of 61.5 percent. Sacred Heart Catholic School in Sedalia, Missouri, doubled its Latino enrollment in the same time period. Last year, this Jefferson City diocesan school served 50 students who made up 15 percent of the total student population.

In Cincinnati, a Latino outreach program spearheaded by the archdiocese made a big difference, and in Sedalia, developing relationships with members of the parish and various church organizations helped Sacred Heart reach new communities.

Beyond addressing anemic enrollment, more aggressive recruitment of Latino students can also make a dent in the ethnic disparities in academic achievement in the United States. Research shows a smaller academic achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white peers who attend Catholic schools, when compared to their counterparts in public schools. Latinos who attend Catholic schools are 42 percent more likely to get their high school diplomas and they are more than twice as likely to graduate from college.

Expanding access to the "Catholic school advantage," is seen in some circles as an obligation, and one that Catholic schools are perfectly capable of addressing.

"Catholic education was not designed for one particular group of people," said Boston College's Weitzel-O'Neill. "What makes it so important and valuable to this country is its ability to be versatile, and serve many, and recognize that that's the call that Catholic education must fulfill."

In the end, improving schools for Latinos is improving Catholic education for everyone.

[Tara García Mathewson is a freelance writer based in Boston.]