The following article is a reprint of Catholic schools make outreach to Hispanic community a priority published by The Visitor.
As a cap-and-gown clad Sally Luciano stepped across the stage to receive her high school diploma this past June, she was surrounded by the cheers of Kleenex-clutching parents and the faculty and staff of St. Mary’s Academy, the 158-year-old prep school in downtown Portland.
It was a treasured moment for the teen and her parents, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic before their daughter was born. It also reflected a relatively uncommon occurrence in the Archdiocese of Portland.
A 2016 report by the Oregon Community Foundation, which promotes effective philanthropy, found that the number of Latinos in the state has increased by 72 percent since 2000. According to the archdiocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry, around 50 percent of western Oregon’s Catholics are Hispanic.
The number of Hispanic students enrolled in Catholic schools, however, hasn’t kept pace: Though the figures have inched upward, currently just 12 percent of elementary school students and 9 percent of secondary students are Hispanic.
Latinos make up nearly a quarter of Oregon public school students, according to the Oregon Community Foundation.
Deacon Felix Garcia, director of the archdiocese’s Hispanic ministry, said there are cultural and financial obstacles to increasing enrollment in Catholic schools and challenges for students once enrolled.
Nevertheless, “outreach to the Hispanic families must be a priority for the church,” he told the Catholic Sentinel, Portland’s archdiocesan newspaper.
The stakes are high. In many ways, “our Hispanic children are the children who need the academics and faith-formation of a Catholic education more than anyone else,” said Father Raul Marquez, pastor of St. Peter Church in Southeast Portland and a native of Colombia.
Younger Latinos are drifting from the faith, he noted, and more than one-third of Oregon’s Latino children live in poverty, according to the foundation report.
Many schools are “trying to do their best,” he said. “But I’m not sure if it’s good enough.”
The bigger picture is brighter, but still sobering. Nationally, 34 percent of Catholics are Hispanic — and that percentage keeps climbing — but only 16.8 percent of students at Catholic schools are Hispanic, according to National Catholic Educational Association data. Just 2.4 percent of all Hispanic school-age youths are enrolled in Catholic schools.
Manuel Fernandez is program manager for the Latino Enrollment Institute, founded at the University of Notre Dame to promote greater Hispanic enrollment in Catholic schools. He said there are two primary reasons for the low numbers.
“In most Latin American countries, Catholic schools are for the elite, for the wealthy, so they are not even on their radar when families come to the U.S.,” he said.
The second reason is finances. Even middle-class immigrant families think they cannot afford Catholic schools, said Fernandez.
The No. 1 priority for schools hoping to attract more Hispanics should be getting the word out that Catholic schools are an attainable goal and not just for the wealthy, Fernandez said.
The most effective way to connect with families is not through a packaged campaign but relationships, he added. “Latinos are all about relationships, so you have to build those up with a family and help them feel at home.”
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