Opportunity knocking: Catholic school answers the call by recruiting Hispanic students Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

Although there are still many strong Catholic schools across the United States, trends show a continuing decline in the number of Catholic schools and students attending those schools.

According to data from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), in the past 10 years, the number of Catholic schools across the country has decreased by 23.8 percent from 8,114 to 6,841. The enrollment in Catholic schools has dropped by 23.4 percent from 2,320,651 to 2,031, 455.

Most of the enrollment decline has been experienced at the elementary school level. It is estimated that there are almost 700,000 empty seats existing in Catholic schools.

Number of Hispanic Catholics growing

The number of Hispanic Catholics in the United States is growing by leaps and bounds. Hispanics now comprise 35 percent of all Catholics and 67 percent of practicing Catholics aged 18 to 34, according to a Notre Dame report, To Nurture the Soul of a Nation: Latino Families, Catholic Schools, and Educational Opportunities (December 2009).

According to the report, only about three percent of Hispanic students currently attend Catholic schools. Many families would like to send their children to Catholic schools, but they think they can’t afford to do so.

This seems like a no-brainer. Catholic schools need more students. There are Hispanic students who do not attend Catholic schools but who desire a Catholic education.

Opportunity is knocking

Holy Cross Fr. Joseph Corpora, who is working with the Notre Dame taskforce that produced the report mentioned above, has an answer. He has proposed filling the empty seats in Catholic schools with Hispanic students. The goal is to increase the number of Hispanic students in Catholic schools to six percent by 2020. That would mean going from 290,000 Hispanic students to one million.

Father Corpora, in an article in the National Catholic Reporter, called this “the largest opportunity facing the Church.” It is definitely opportunity knocking.

IHM School answers the call

One school in the Diocese of Madison is answering that call. Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) School in Monona knew that the Hispanic population in Madison and the surrounding areas was growing. The pastor, Fr. Bart Timmerman, speaks Spanish and had training in Hispanic ministry in the seminary.

He encouraged the school to begin a student recruitment program that targets Hispanic immigrant students from families who want to send their children to a Catholic school but were unable to afford the full tuition.

A story by Father Timmerman in this week’s Catholic Herald talks about the Catholic School Advantage Program (CSA) begun two years ago at IHM. There are now 28 students in the CSA program at IHM, helping increase the school’s enrollment  by 48 percent.

Leap of faith

IHM took the “build it and they will come” approach to this effort. “We offered it and then looked for funding,” said Father Timmerman. “It was a leap of faith. We have a wonderful school with a strong Catholic identity. We wanted to share it with people who want a Catholic school.”

The CSA program started by word of mouth and contact with the Hispanic community in Madison. The program now has a board of directors with Hispanic parents who are reaching out to more families.

Besides benefitting the CSA students, Father Timmerman said adding the Hispanic and some Asian students has helped the entire school and parish. “It benefits everyone. It is diversifying our population and we have many gifts to share with each other.” The school’s hot lunch program is more sustainable and there are more volunteers. “It’s been a great blessing,” said the pastor.

IHM Principal Mary Bartsch and the school’s development director, Joe Blewett, also said the CSA program has been a positive experience. “It’s been a nice mesh of cultures,” said Bartsch. “Our students are learning Spanish. The younger students are helping each other.”

Opportunity is indeed knocking and Catholic schools like Immaculate Heart of Mary are answering the call by welcoming Hispanic students. It’s something many other Catholic schools could consider to ensure a stronger future.