For more than 100 years, Catholic schools provided free schooling to the impoverished children of immigrants. The financial survival of these schools was made possible by a workforce of Catholic nuns who provided their services at very low or no cost.
Today, Catholic schools are primarily staffed by lay teachers and the students are no longer made up of the church’s immigrant majority. That title now falls to Latinos, but while Latino children make up more than half of the entire population of school-aged Catholics, they are barely 3% of the Catholic school population.
This week, Boston College gathered Catholic school educators and church leaders from across the country in the first national summit on Catholic schools and Hispanic families. As these school, district and parish leaders consider ways to welcome Latino students and families into their organizations, their conversations are not unlike the ones being had in public, charter and independent secular schools.
“Our schools in general, and our Catholic schools in particular, have abundant educational inequities,” said Martin Scanlan, an associate professor in Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. “They embarrass us, they trouble us, they haunt us. We are fighting them. But we fight them better if we are not randomly trying solutions.”
Scanlan laid out a theory of action for schools to consider as they try to address the educational inequities that come from racism, xenophobia and classism, in particular. First, Scanlan says schools need to invest in human capital. Sometimes that will mean hiring new people, but in the meantime, schools can invest in professional development for current teachers, staff members and administrators.
The next part of Scanlan’s schema is the idea of collaboration. People do not learn as isolated individuals, he says, and schools should not expect staff to do so. Creating communities of practice and giving educators a chance to come together can help animate an entire team toward shared goals.
But where do those goals come from? Scanlan recommends “improvement science,” or evidence-based practices. Schools should try new innovations, but they should examine what works and what doesn’t and change in response to any failures.
Ursula Aldana, assistant professor of Catholic educational leadership at the University of San Francisco, encouraged school leaders to think about school culture.
“School culture is a great way to think about the ways schools can either engage people or marginalize people,” Aldana said.
Catholic schools are certainly feeling the ripple effects of demographic change in regions where immigrant groups replaced earlier arrivals but leadership in the church remained the same. While arguably less extreme, the story is not so different in public schools. Federal data shows about 80% of teachers are white, while only half of their students are.
An obvious strategy in making Latino families feel comfortable in their schools is hiring more staff members who share their culture. Aldana calls these new hires cultural bridges. She says the work can’t stop there, however. Facing the impact of discrimination is also important.
“Small things erode at the feeling of being welcomed and belonging,” Aldana said. “The research would indicate that discrimination on any sort of level really does have a powerful effect on students. It disengages them from school. If we’re interested in serving students in an education setting, we can’t have that happen.”
In California, Aldana sees schools developing culturally relevant curricula for Latino students. They are also training teachers to be culturally responsive and recognize their biases through targeted professional development.
Frank self-reflection is not easy. But as schools of all kinds respond to the fast-growing Latino minority in the United States, it is only becoming more critical to engage in this hard work.