A national initiative to seat 1 million more Hispanic students in Catholic schools by 2020 could boost what’s already being done by the Diocese of Phoenix, the superintendent said this week.
Graciela Alvarez grew up in Catholic schools. When she came to America from Colombia, she enrolled her daughters in Catholic schools in Los Angeles. Today, her grandchildren follow in their footsteps, the youngest one in kindergarten at Chandler's St. Mary-Basha Elementary School.
"It's the most important thing - to teach my daughters to know God, and I think the Catholic school is the best way. After that, there's the great education they receive," Alvarez said Wednesday, following her daily routine as a volunteer at the school.
Catholic school leaders are hoping others mirror the Alvarez family trend.
A national initiative to seat 1 million more Hispanic students in Catholic schools by 2020 could boost what's already being done by the Diocese of Phoenix, the superintendent said this week.
In December, a task force created by the University of Notre Dame launched the campaign with the release of a report about access and educational opportunities for Hispanics. Right now, 3 percent of students in American Catholic schools are Hispanic. The group hopes to double that in 10 years.
The Valley's diocese already has marketing tools in place in its churches and around the community, including the East Valley, Executive Director of Education and Evangelization and Superintendent of Schools MaryBeth Mueller said.
There are billboards and bulletin announcements in Spanish and English. Schools also ask parents to get the word out and tell others about their children's schools. Each of the more than 40 Valley Catholic schools have a marketing and recruiting handbook developed from one used by the Diocese of Des Moines (Iowa), Mueller said.
The diocese might even be part of pilot programming the Notre Dame committee creates to reach out to Hispanic families, Mueller said.
"Some of the schools have opened up their computer labs for teaching parents computer literacy and English as a Second Language skills," she said. "St. Matthew school (in Phoenix) is beginning a dual language program for kindergarten and first-grade students, as well."
In the last 20 years, there has been an increase of Hispanics in the schools around the diocese, from 21 percent of the student population in 1989 to 26 percent of the 14,162 students enrolled in Valley Catholic schools this school year.
But there is room for more.
At Chandler's St. Mary-Basha, principal Sister Mary Norbert said she's seen an increase in the Hispanic enrollment during her 26 years at the school. Today, 33 percent of the 513 students are Hispanic.
"In our local parish we have a number of Hispanic families. We are reaching out to them with pulpit announcements and encouragement to register for our school. Pastor Dan (McBride) has said we need to reach out to the families also," she said.
McBride leads the parish - St. Mary's Catholic Church - that supports the school.
The school currently has 17 openings, a gap Norbert hopes to fill. Norbert said the school is starting an outreach to the community this year, letting more people outside the parish know about the school.
"The biggest difficulty is we're not a free school. ... Tuition has been the stumbling block for many families," she said.
The school is based in an older part of Chandler, north of downtown. About 60 percent of the students at St. Mary-Basha receive some tuition assistance.
Susie Garcia said her mom made an extra effort to put her through St. Mary-Basha as a student. Now, as a mom, she's doing the same for her children.
"My mom wanted us to have a Catholic education, and she did everything that was possible for us to have that Catholic education. So that influenced my own decision for my kids," she said. "One of the reasons I wanted them to come here was the wonderful experiences that I had that have stayed with me for years. I wanted that for my kids."
Mueller attributes the increase of Hispanics in the Valley's Catholic schools during the past two decades to the growing Hispanic population in Arizona, as well as an increased awareness of the Catholic schools and scholarship opportunities, particularly through the Catholic Tuition Organization of the Diocese of Phoenix (CTODP), which targets its tax credit scholarships to families with financial need.
That influx of Hispanics to Arizona's population has certainly made a difference at Mesa's Queen of Peace School, said Deacon Richard Areyzaga, the school's principal. When he began six years ago, the Hispanic population at the school was about 40 to 45 percent.
Queen of Peace School serves students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. There are about 190 students attending the school now, though the campus has room for 300, he said.
Two years ago, the church's leaders instituted a sliding scale for tuition. That allows families to get started at the school even if they have yet to receive scholarship money.
The school then encourages them to seek scholarship funds from CTODP.
"What we're hoping is they sign up for (the tax-credit-based scholarship program) and by next year they'll still keep their payments that low. We try to get them acclimated to tuition payments," Areyzaga said.
The school is one of the oldest in the diocese. Since it is also located in downtown Mesa, it doesn't attract more affluent families, Areyzaga said. Those families may choose some of the newer Catholic schools in the area.
But the school still attracts families from all across the East Valley - Gilbert, Queen Creek, Apache Junction and Chandler, as well as Mesa. There has also been an increase in global demographics, with students from India, Africa, Korea and the Philippines enrolling.
"We do a lot of pulpit announcements. We try to reach out more to the parishioners to get them to enroll their students. We do a lot of advertising in the Sunday bulletin. About March, we really start pushing it," Areyzaga said.
Many of the students in this year's graduating class started at the school 10 years ago in the prekindergarten program.
"The pre-k becomes the feeder for kindergarten. They tend to stay if they get in that low (age level)," he said.