The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is a contributing factor for large enrollment numbers of Latinos at some Milwaukee schools, but changing demographics also play a part in places like Walworth County where there is no Choice Program, Cepelka said.
“I’ve been amazed at the fact that almost all of our schools formally teach Spanish,” she said. “They encourage not just a knowledge of the language, but of Latino traditions, whether or not there’s a large Latino population in those schools. Our schools are increasingly sensitized to the trend that is the Latino trend of growth in our societies and in our church. We really attempt to do this in a way that is both compassionate and practical.”
Largest school has waiting list
St. Anthony School in Milwaukee has the largest number of Latino students in its grade school – 1,284 of its total 1,297 students – and in its high school –190 of its 191 students. The school and its Latino population have continued to grow since Ramón Cruz came on board as principal in 2003 – he noted that the addition of 11th grade next year will bring in at least 100 more students. “We even have a waiting list in sixth and eighth grade …” he said. “Parents know how good the program is, so they talk to their friends and relatives … and we keep getting calls.”
Because St. Anthony is an English immersion school, Cruz said it offers the students, many who come in speaking little English, a lot of support in learning English, corrective math and reading programs.
“We have aides who help mainly in the lower grades, in K4 and K5 – every classroom has an educational aide or assistant,” Cruz said, explaining that the office secretaries also speak Spanish and they have translators at teacher-parent conferences and open houses. “And sometimes we don’t have enough, usually we don’t have enough, and so we call other agencies and find other people who can come in and help with the translation,” Cruz said, referring to places like The Spanish Center, United Community Center or UMOS.
The school also offers parents English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, computer classes and classes on study skills and how to help their kids at home.
Space is biggest challenge
Cruz said St. Anthony is challenged in finding building resources at the ever-expanding school – they currently teach at five different locations. But the largest challenge he cited was finding “excellent” and “qualified” Catholic teachers who speak Spanish; it’s not a requirement, but priority is given to those teachers who qualify and speak Spanish. “At the present time, we’re trying to (organize) a class for them to speak Spanish,” Cruz said of something they hope to offer the teaching staff in the fall.
Meeting the needs of incoming Latino students and families is something that Cruz said other schools can do by talking to the parents, learning about the needs of their families and then informing them of the programs the school offers. “I think we have wonderful kids in this school,” he said. “I think they do well, but they need a lot of help.”
St. Roman School in Milwaukee is part of the Choice Program, and 98 of its 262 students are Latino. “The impression certainly is, from my teachers, that we’re getting more Hispanic kids and we’re doing some in-service here as a result of that, because people are feeling like we don’t know enough about Hispanic culture to honor it the way we should be doing and addressing the existing kids that we should and the way we’d like to,” Dan Tackes, principal, said of St. Roman where teachers in the classrooms are always trying to “individualize things for kids,” but not necessarily specific to a culture.
Tackes noted that at the end of last year the school began having parent volunteers translate the weekly newsletter into Spanish – so that it can be sent to the 45 families who receive it. “We’ve made adjustments, for instance, like we have a Spanish teacher here at school, so we’re fortunate in that if a parent calls and they’re not very fluent in English, then we just have somebody cover that class so that that teacher can come in and communicate with them effectively,” Tackes said, explaining that they will also have Spanish-speaking tour guides at the open house next week “to try to make people feel more comfortable.” The Spanish teacher also does some ESL instruction as needed.
Communication is key issue
Tackes said the school’s biggest challenge in accommodating the growth of Hispanic students has been trying to be more sensitive to communicating with the families – hence the translated newsletter. “(Before), we were leaving a lot or putting a lot on students’ shoulders, I think, to take information home and explain it to parents and so I think we had misunderstandings of kids telling parents something which wasn’t quite what we meant,” Tackes laughed. “…that was a big step to communicating better with the parents.”
The students and faculty alike are learning Spanish songs during Mass, because Tackes said the pastor, who also speaks Spanish, has been intertwining some of the culture into the school liturgies.
“I think we’re more aware of Hispanic traditions either religious or socially so we’re trying to do a little bit more with recognizing some of the important days in the various Hispanic cultures,” Tackes said. “So, not just celebrating the traditional holidays – the traditional American holidays – as we go along, and we certainly have promoted some Hispanic religious celebrations, I guess you’d call them, as our population has grown.”
A few teachers have also asked Tackes if they could get Spanish education through the school’s Spanish teacher. “…some teachers came to me and said, ‘Hey, if we threw in some money to reimburse our Spanish teacher, do you think she’d be willing to teach us some Spanish after school that might be helpful with parents or students?’ and so I talked with the Spanish teacher and she would be willing to do that,” Tackes said, noting that the teacher already had ideas about teaching a kind of Spanish as a second language program tailored to educators’ needs.
“The parish did purchase a Spanish version of Rosetta Stone and some of us are trying to find the time to spend enough time with it to learn more Spanish, so I think there’s a feeling that we need to be more aware and more skilled,” he said.
Hispanic population has enriched life at school
The increase in the Hispanic population has enriched life at St. Roman, according to Tackes. “I’m really pleased that we have quite a number of staff members that see this as an enrichment of our school, rather than a challenge or whatever to our school, and I think that having the variety in the school is something we see as really positive because all of these kids are going to be living in a much more multicultural world than any of us grew up in,” he said.
Richard Mason, principal for eight years at Holy Wisdom Academy, a K4-eighth grade school, said that three factors have led to Latinos making up 252 of the 285-total student body: growth of the Hispanic population in that part of town and on the South Side; the fact that Latinos value Catholic education; and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program enabling Latinos to access the archdiocese’s Catholic schools.
As an English immersion school, Mason said Holy Wisdom has a bilingual full-time aide at the K4 level, because at least half of the 4-year-old kindergarten students don’t speak English. Mason and two teachers also speak Spanish, which is important when they translate 35 to 40 conferences for the many first-generation parents. They also send a lot of the information, parent letters and information about Catholic Schools week home in English and Spanish, Mason said.
School plans to add classroom
Space has been the school’s biggest challenge. “With the current enrollments, assuming this continues, we’d add a third grade for the next year, but it’s managed growth, it’s not just growth without any borders or limits,” Mason said of the two sites, five blocks apart, that make up the school. The growth is something the pastor, school committee and parish council support, he said. “They’re not against the growth as long as it’s well thought-out and managed and it’s a good plan.”
The growth of the Latino student population at Holy Wisdom has benefited the school. “Our mission is to serve, provide a strong, Catholic education for our families, just all for our families in the neighborhood, and whether they’re Hispanic or any other ethnic group, that by having good enrollments and a gradual increase, then it’s good because we’re doing the work of the church,” Mason said. “We’re fulfilling our mission. If you don’t have enough students then you can’t continue.”
The advice he had for other schools that may experience the growth that Holy Wisdom already has, is to be a welcoming Catholic school to Latino families in different ways, like having someone there who speaks Spanish “even if it’s a secretary – and you welcome the families in and it’s a Catholic school … these families will come to your school with their children,” said Mason, who’s in his 28th year in Catholic education.
The more teachers know about the needs of the Hispanic students, the more effective they’re going to be Cepelka said. “The more sensitive they are, the more aware they are of who the children are who are coming to them, what their needs are, what they seem to be not just lacking, maybe in terms of some of the material things that others might have, but what they bring – the beauty that they bring – in terms of their culture, their traditions, their family life, their personalities,” Cepelka said. “It becomes a win-win, an enrichment for all.”
‘Do better job of welcoming them’
Embracing the Hispanic students – through the programs offered in the Catholic schools is important, Cepelka said, explaining as principal of Catholic Memorial she found that Latino students didn’t always feel like they were moving into a community. “We need to do a better job of welcoming them in a way that really embraces the unique gifts of their background, of their life, their lives, that really not just integrates them, but really benefits from the gifts they have to bring as well,” Cepelka said, explaining that a natural community is formed more easily when schools have a larger Hispanic student population. “We need to be very self-extending in what we share as well so that it is truly a community that is formed and not anything that would make them feel isolated or segregated or not fully embraced and appreciated.”
As schools throughout the archdiocese work to meet the needs of the rising population of Hispanic students, and their families, through programs and services, Cepelka said the biggest benefit of the welcomed “shift into a multicultural church” lies in cultural and spiritual enrichment. “We are a global church and the more that our schools can become microcosms of that global church and global society, the more we not only are, as I said before, personally enriched, but the more effectively we’re going to be able to prepare our students to be true Catholics, true live-ers of people who live their faith in a comprehensive way, in a meaningful way in the future.”