We arrived at All Saints Catholic School in Richmond, Virginia before 7 a.m.. The parking lot was empty and the sun was just rising. The principal, Ken Soistman, came out to greet us. He pointed at a cute little white bus that could hold about twenty kids and said, “That’s the bus.” He was referring to the transportation that Catholic Extension funded for this semester, so that the Hispanic children whose parents could not drive them to school could start attending All Saints this year. This is a part of Catholic Extension’s pilot program to better understand how transportation impacts Hispanic participation in schools. Like many of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Richmond, All Saints had tried to encourage more Hispanic children in the area to come to the Catholic school by offering tuition assistance. But even financial help could not bring families into the school community.
The fact is that many families simply can’t get their children to school; they only have one car, and parents have to leave for work before school opens. So now, thanks to this bus, more children are able to come. The hope is that more Hispanic children will enroll in All Saints Catholic School, as well as many of the other Catholic schools across the Diocese of Richmond. That is why this bus is on Catholic Extension’s Christmas Wish List; hopefully the bus will be funded by donors for the second half of the year, too.
Dioceses across the country are trying to attract more Hispanic children to Catholic schools. While over 40% of our country’s Catholics are Hispanic, less than 4% of the children who are in Catholic schools are Hispanic. Since 2000, more than 1,400 Catholic schools have closed. If recruitment efforts are successful, more Catholic schools can remain open, and more Catholic Hispanic children will have a chance at an education that will help them build a solid Catholic foundation to guide them through the rest of their lives.
In Richmond, they have created the Segura Initiative to recruit more Hispanic children to the Catholic schools. We met Sister Inma Cuest-Ventura, one of the people working on this initiative; she has already had some great success. In order for this project to be successful, there needs to be people within the school who speak Spanish. They have also learned how to engage the help of the madrinas, which is Spanish for “godmothers.” These are the trusted women of the neighborhood, whom others listen to. One of the madrinas at All Saints, Paulita, not only works at the local parish and has her child in the school, she has offered to translate into Spanish the letters the teachers send home. Paulita’s own son had been unhappy at the local public school; he was ashamed to say that he spoke Spanish because he didn’t want to be different from the other kids. Now at All Saints, he is not only proud to answer questions in Spanish, but also says that he loves the school because all the other kids are Catholic like him. This is a big deal in Richmond, where only 3% of the population is Catholic.
Nitzia, another madrina, has two daughters at All Saints in Pre-K and second grade. Nitzia said that her daughter now insists that they say grace before dinner because “That’s what we do at school.” Her other daughter doesn’t call it All Saints, she calls it “God’s School.” In August, as Nitzia was eight months pregnant and getting ready to go into the hospital to deliver her baby, she was running around trying to get her daughters’ uniforms so they could go to All Saints. Her friends and family told her not to go through all the difficulty of getting her girls to the Catholic school. She responded, “No, I was doing it for my daughters. It would be better for them.”
Principal Ken explained that it is painful to see some families have to leave All Saints because they can’t afford it. He said: “For some of the parents and grandparents, I can’t say no. I have a grandparent who comes in and says, ‘Where I live, if I can’t get an option, it’s not a question of the education, it’s a question of whether my child will be alive when they’re sixteen.’ You can’t say no to that.”
We hope that Richmond’s success, due to people like Ken and Sister Inma and the madrinas, can serve as a model for other dioceses. Our visit to All Saints will help to inform Catholic Extension’s future strategy to build capacity in Catholic schools by helping them fill seats, so that more principals like Ken can say “yes” to those who want to attend Catholic school.
— Terry Witherell, National Representative for Strategic Initiatives, Catholic Extension