By Carl Peters
When Hispanic children enroll in Catholic schools, both the children and the school benefit.
Those actively working to increase Hispanic enrollment in Catholic schools make that argument, pointing to the proven advantages of Catholic education for all students, and noting that many Catholic schools need to increase enrollment to survive.
But they also go further.
A few simple statistics show that getting more Hispanic children into Catholic school uniforms is vital to the future of the church in the United States, they say.
Why? The simple fact is that the church in America cannot be separated from the growing Hispanic influence in American society.
Currently, only about 3 percent of Hispanic children attend Catholic schools nationally. (In the Diocese of Camden the number is about 10 percent.) To settle for that statistic, as the Catholic Hispanic population continues to grow, means letting the schools become remnants of the past and allowing future generations to reach adulthood without the academic training and formation in the faith that Catholic education can provide.
Marianela Nuñez, who works in the Diocese of Camden, is one of 15 individuals in the United States whose job it is to help Catholic schools recruit Hispanic students. Her official title is Field Consultant for the Latino Enrollment Initiative, and her work is funded by a three-year grant from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“I am the story I am selling,” she says.
Nuñez grew up in the Dominican Republic where she was raised by her grandmother, who instilled in her a love of education. One afternoon Nuñez came home and told her grandmother about her experiences in public school and her unhappiness there.
“She said, ‘I don’t want you there,’” Nuñez recalled. She had no money for tuition, so she went to see a local priest for help. “We were poor. She asked for help. She was bold.”
Consequently, Nuñez started going to Catholic school in the sixth grade on a scholarship. She was taught by the Sisters of Mercy and soon started to excel.
Nuñez came to the United States in 2008 and worked as a waitress while she continued her education at Rowan University in Glassboro. She managed to finish her degree in time for her grandmother, who had become ill, to attend her graduation before she died. Nuñez remembers her smiling grandmother putting on her cap and gown.
Nuñez went on to earn a master’s degree at Villanova and to work at Saint Joseph Pro-Cathedral in Camden, where she taught English as a Second Language and helped Spanish-speaking parents whose children attended the parish school.
When Nuñez talks about her work as a Field Consultant for the Latino Enrollment Initiative, she talks about “empowerment” and “opportunities” and “the gift of a great Catholic education.” She tells parents, “We are going to help your kids succeed and be leaders — leaders with values.”
And she talks about the church and the immigrant experience as well as education.
“I’m serving my people. They have come to this country as I did,” she says. “This is what we are called to do as Catholics, to help those in need, to serve immigrants.”
A Boston College report on Catholic schools and Hispanic Catholics in the United States, released March 7, noted that “unknowingly, some schools exhibit what has been described as a ‘chilly climate’ when hosting Hispanic families.”
Nuñez has made it her task to be a bridge between school communities and local Hispanic culture. She goes to parish events to promote Catholic schools, meets with principals, does media interviews and makes herself available to Hispanic families who need any kind of help. She is also helping some schools enlist bilingual volunteers.
Still, perhaps the biggest challenge, as Nuñez knows from her own experience, is money. In many cases, neither families nor schools have enough, so Nuñez pushes the Catholic School Advantage (CSA) Campaign.
Simply put, she is asking schools to follow a practice used by airlines and other businesses. As departure time draws close, the airline will sell empty seats at a discount on the theory that it’s financially better to sell seats at a reduced price rather than leave them empty.
The same argument can be made about desks and chairs in a classroom, Nuñez says. Providing income-based tuition benefits both families and schools, she argues. So far she has working relationships with 15 principals.
“Latinos are here to stay,” Nuñez says. “Bringing Latino children to our schools is critical for the future of our schools.”