A recent study of Catholic schools in the United States raised questions about how well our Catholic schools are serving the Latino community. California Catholic schools are ahead of the curve.

The report from Boston College’s Roche Center for Catholic Education and its School of Theology and Ministry published findings from a 2014 study that shows that, on average, Catholic schools are underserving immigrant families and the existing Latino community.

The report found that only 2.3 percent of all school-age Latino children are enrolled in Catholic schools, just over 296,000 out of 12.4 million Latino children — 8 million of which are Catholic. Several factors are pointed to as reasons for such a low percentage.

The report identifies issues such as lack of: cultural training among school staff, bilingual teachers and administrators; Latino board members; training in Hispanic ministry and theology, and; communication and interaction between administrative offices and offices focused on Latino ministry.

These deficits can create an unwelcoming environment for prospective Latino families due to a failure to fully embrace Latino culture and language. The report calls for a “new approach” to all aspects of the Catholic school experience for Latino families — a “concerted, collaborative effort” inviting in as many voices and perspectives as possible.

In California, this “new approach” is an expansion on what Catholic schools here have been doing well for decades in serving the Latino community.

“Our reality is a lot different than the Boston College report would indicate,” said Kevin Baxter, senior director and superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “I feel that if we just had a report looking at the Southwest, it would be a totally different picture.

“We have been serving a large percentage of Hispanic families for 50, 60, 70 years. It’s not new for us out here,” he added. “In our teaching staff and our principal staff we have large percentages of Latino principals and Latino teachers.”

They also have a vision that has been working well in enrolling Latino children at rates much higher than the percentages seen in the Boston College report. Data provided from the archdiocese for the 2015-2016 academic year show that Latinos made up 56 percent of elementary school students and 49 percent of secondary schools students in local Catholic schools. 

Earlier this year, the California Conference of Catholic Bishops put out a statement that examined the vision of Catholic schools in California, the impact they have and their mission going forward.

‘Our Catholic Schools in California’

“Our Catholic Schools in California: A Stellar Past, A Robust Future” highlights the successes brought about by high quality Catholic education in California, especially for Latino students. It looks squarely at the challenges of educating more than 200,000 students throughout the state while keeping focused on the mission of Catholic education.

The statement describes education that involves the “whole person” and “focuses not only on the intellect, but on the spiritual and moral person as well.” It highlights the important issues for families sending their children to Catholic schools, including “commonality of values, faith inspired environment and community atmosphere,” as well as a collaborative relationship between parents and teachers.

The impact on the Latino community is highlighted in statistics.

Latino students in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles achieve a 97.5 percent high school graduation rate, as opposed to 66 percent for Latinos in the Los Angeles public school system.

In addition, Latinos are 2.5 times more likely to graduate from college if they attend Catholic school. These graduates earn higher incomes, are more likely to be civically engaged, tolerant and service oriented and are also more likely to stay in the faith as an adult.

“The California bishops’ statement is an affirmative document, really talking about our reality here in California. We have never had more Catholics in the state of California than we do today,” Baxter said. “It is kind of a booming time, especially for us out West.”

Latinos number around 15 million in California. The bishops’ statement contains a number of directives, and devotes Directive III towards making Catholic schools more desirable, accessible and affordable for Latino families.

“We have to focus on the fact that we want to market our Catholic schools, market the accessibility and affordability, to those populations that might not otherwise have that understanding,” Baxter said, noting that in some countries, Catholic schools are for the wealthy or elite, and not seen by some immigrants as something that is possible for their families.

“We have a history of being mission driven, being in urban environments, in low-income communities and serving those communities extremely effectively. We’ve been effective at educating the children of those who might not have financial means to the degree where they become leaders of our country, leaders of society, as well as leaders of the Church,” said Baxter. “It’s hugely impactful.”

“At the local level, you have a measure of keeping the cost down in our Catholic schools through good and faithful stewardship, at the same time opening up assistance opportunities that respect families, not make families dependent on them,” said Raymond Burnell, associate director for governmental relations at the California Catholic Conference.

“On the statewide level, we work for ways that are going to empower Latino families to choose the educational community and the curriculum and the philosophy that they think is best for their own kids,” he said.

“It’s not just students, it’s families. So you recruit a family into a Catholic school. Catholic schools are really a family of families,” Burnell said.

Clergy play a key role in recruiting Latino families, according to Burnell. He noted that pastors can speak to Latino families within the parish community, see what their educational priorities for their children are and share with them how it is related to parish schools, whether it is served by that particular parish or not.

The “Madrinas” program “utilizes current school families who are Latino, especially mothers and grandmothers, to be a face of the school,” said Baxter. A team of parents can interact and engage with Hispanic families in the parish community who might not be in the Catholic schools to educate them about what it involves.

These connections are powerful when a parent, sacrificing to have their children enrolled in Catholic school, is able to share with another Latino family how they are able to make it work in their financial reality.

“Research is really clear and consistent in looking at lower income students who are really struggling financially — that’s who Catholic schools have the largest impact with,” Baxter said. “They tend to have the largest impact with minority and low-income communities. Making sure families understand that the commitments they make at the elementary or high school level really has a profound impact on their child’s success.”

“Our vision of growth really rests on really solid leadership, being innovative in our practice and consistently trying to better our schools — to experience success and really try to build on that success,” he continued. “We are serving less than one in 10 of our Catholic kids in our Catholic schools today. If we can up that percentage even slightly, it would mean tens of thousands more students,” Baxter said. “That vision of growth is dependent on ensuring that we are continuing and even growing the percentage of Hispanic families in our Catholic schools.