For the past 175 years, the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have been shaped by the various immigrant groups and their descendants who placed such a high value on Catholic education that, in some cases, they built a parish school before they constructed a parish church. While the immigrants of the 1800’s and 1900’s who sought and benefited from a Catholic school experience came largely from Europe (my own grandparents immigrated from Czechoslovakia in the early 1900’s), today’s Catholic schools are accepting immigrants and their children from all over the world. In particular, our schools are seeking to welcome and more effectively serve the growing Catholic Hispanic population that now comprises more than 40% of the total Catholic population in the United States.
Ten years ago, when I was principal of Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, we were concerned about attracting an increased percentage of the Hispanic population of Waukesha to our Catholic Memorial community. To that end, we engaged in dialogue with local Hispanic leaders and initiated multiple forms of outreach to Hispanic students and their families. In general, however, we felt that our efforts were mildly successful at best, mainly because we weren’t well prepared to welcome these new members meaningfully into our community. We lacked the knowledge and resources to expand our curricular, liturgical, and community building practices to help them feel at home. Today, Catholic Memorial and several other Catholic high schools in our archdiocese have an “Inclusivity Leader” or “Diversity Director” in place to assist their communities in becoming more culturally responsive, particularly to the needs of Hispanics and new immigrant groups.
According to the 2016 report from Boston College, Catholic Schools in an Increasingly Hispanic Church, more than half of all school-age Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, but only 4% of school-age Catholics are enrolled in Catholic schools. By contrast, 12% of all school-age Catholics, representing all ages and ethnicities, are enrolled in Catholic schools. The National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) further reports that the percentage of Hispanic enrollment in Catholic schools throughout the United States has grown from 15% in 2013 – 2014 to 16.8% in 2016 – 2017.
In the 95 elementary schools of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 14.7% in 2007 – 2008 to 23.7% in 2016 – 2017. In our 15 Catholic high schools, the percentage rose from 12.5% to 24.8% in the same timeframe.
As an outgrowth of the 2014 Archdiocesan Synod, a Hispanic Catholic Education Ad Hoc Committee has been formed to design a plan aimed at helping our Catholic elementary and secondary schools become more welcoming and inclusive of the growing Hispanic community and more effective in meeting its needs. Under consideration are such programs or services as Spanish language support for parents through print materials and Spanish-speaking staff, special education services for children with unique learning needs, graduate support services to assist students in their transition to the next academic level, cultural competency training for faculty, staff, and students, and financial support for qualifying families.
In addition, a number of our Catholic elementary schools have sent teams to participate in the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) at the University of Notre Dame sponsored by Fr. Joe Corpora, C.S.C., and the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE.) The LEI assists Catholic schools that have capacity for growth, an increasing number of Hispanic families in the surrounding area, and strong, motivated principals by helping them to transform their schools to attract and serve Hispanic students more effectively. The schools from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that have been or will be involved in the LEI program at Notre Dame University include: Blessed Sacrament, Milwaukee; Divine Mercy, South Milwaukee; Holy Wisdom, Milwaukee; John Paul II Academy, Racine; Mary Queen of Saints, West Allis; Our Lady of Grace Academy, Racine; St. Andrew, Delavan; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Sheboygan; St. John Kanty, Milwaukee; St. Matthias, Milwaukee, Wauwatosa Catholic, and Waukesha Catholic.
Catholic education everywhere —and especially in our Archdiocese of Milwaukee — is truly a “pearl of great price,” an opportunity for students and their families to meaningfully experience the integration of faith with culture which is the essence of a Catholic school. Our greatest hope as Catholic educators today, as it was for those whose legacy we continue, is that every child, from every background and with every type of ability, will have access to and benefit from the treasure of a Catholic school.