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The Role of Catholic Schools in Latino Education

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Catholic schools have long been a foothold for the children of immigrants. For my parents, the products of Catholic education in Ecuador, these schools were a natural first choice for their children.

But in recent years, the growth of charter schools, rising tuition costs and the increasing number of Latinos joining evangelical Protestant churches has threatened the survival of Catholic schools across the country. Schools in urban or low-income areas, where Latino students often make up the majority of students, are among those most in danger of closing.

In this Philadelphia Inquirer story, reporter Claudia Vargas looks at a New Jersey bill that would allow private and parochial schools to receive public funds if they agree to strip the school of its religious identity. According to Vargas, several schools in Washington recently agreed to such a conversion.

The story quotes Monsignor Michael Doyle, pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic School and Church in Camden, N.J., an economically distressed city near Philadelphia. Latinos make up the majority of the student body at three of the city’s four Catholic schools. About 93 percent of those students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.

“Catholic schools are ‘in a desperate situation’ financially,” Doyle told the paper, noting that many families cannot afford the tuition of $1,100 for one child.

I covered Camden for many years as a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I saw the integral role Catholic schools and churches played in the Latino community. This story got me thinking about the larger issue of the struggle to keep Catholic schools open and the effect that is having on Latino families.

According to the National Catholic Education Association, the percentage of minorities enrolled in Catholic schools has gone up significantly in the last 40 years, rising from 10.8 percent in 1970 to 30.3 percent in 2011. Latinos make up about 13 percent of Catholic school students.

In addition, Catholic schools around the country are staging campaigns to attract more Latino students, according to this story in U.S. Catholic magazine. One issue confronted by many schools, according to the article, is their slowness to recognize and accommodate the cultural differences between European immigrants and Latin American immigrants.

What role do Catholic schools play in the Latino communities in your area? Are they competing with charter schools for students? Are they on the verge of closure? If they are, what would happen to the schools’ students? Have they kept up with the changes in demographics and cultural traditions?

Why do Latino families choose Catholic schools and  what sacrifices do they make in order to do so? How do Catholic school leaders view their place in Latino communities?