By Rick Pendergast, Senior Consultant
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Many Catholic schools are experiencing declining enrollment. What is surprising is that so many of them are ignoring the potential contained within the growing Hispanic population. There are numerous reasons why a school ignores the Hispanic community within its attendance area. They believe Hispanic parishioners can’t aﬀord the tuition; they don’t speak English well; they need too much remedial assistance; they won’t fit in with the culture of the school, etc. While some of these excuses are valid, that is not usually the case. The main reasons for ignoring the nearby Hispanic community are misinformation and fear.
Let’s look at misinformation. Most people understand that as a group, Hispanics are predominately Catholic. Specifically, the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS) estimated that while 22 percent of non-Hispanic white adults self-identify as Catholic, 63 percent of Hispanics identify themselves as Catholic. Not only are Hispanics Catholic, but more and more, Catholics are Hispanic! The Pew Research Center’s study “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (2015), noted that 34 percent of Catholics are Hispanic and they are younger than non-Hispanics. Pew compares Baby Boomers, who are 67 percent non-Hispanic white and 26 percent Hispanic to Millennials, who are 43 percent non-Hispanic white and 46 percent Hispanic.
The language issue is rapidly dissolving. Pew’s 2014 report “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States” reveals that while 59 percent of immigrant Hispanics prefer attending a Spanish-language Mass, only 10 percent of Hispanics born in the U.S. share that preference. That becomes significant when another 2014 Pew report, “Hispanic Nativity Shift,” identified a 2012 statistic that 64 percent of the total Hispanic population was born in the United States. Since 2000, Pew notes, natural childbirth contributed more to Hispanic population increases than immigration.
Just like when other ethnic groups arrived in the U.S. as immigrants, the parents hold onto their former customs and language while the children quickly assimilate. Current research all points to a day in the near future when children will have Hispanic surnames but will consider themselves American in most ways. If Catholic schools don’t attract these children of the immigrant generation, we will lose an opportunity to connect with this culture for generations to come. If Hispanics become comfortable in the public school system, it will be difficult to convince the children of the second generation to consider Catholic education. That day may be far from today, but the seeds are planted now.
Another concern is that Hispanics by and large cannot afford to pay tuition at a Catholic school. That is probably accurate today, but it also ignores the long term. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA) 1964 research blog Do Catholic Schools Matter, if controls for income, age, education and other factors are applied, there is no difference between Hispanics and any other race or ethnicity regarding a desire for a Catholic education. That is, the main hesitation for Hispanics today IS affordability, but that is almost certain to change as the second and third generations secure higher paying jobs. Again, if those children of today’s immigrants are not a part of the Catholic school culture, it is less likely that they will send their future children to Catholic schools, even though they will be able to afford it.
Because many of today’s Hispanics cannot afford Catholic school tuition, we must find ways to help them. Our Advancement departments might need to address the issue directly with the school’s donors as a social justice issue. Our dioceses might need to provide specific financial assistance to Hispanic families. More radically, schools with consistently under-enrolled classrooms could consider providing discounts for Hispanic families, similar to the program in the Diocese of Allentown. Empty classroom seats could be offered to Hispanic families for a fraction of the prevailing tuition. In classic win-win style, the classroom is more robust, the intellectual diversity is increased, finances improve by receiving at least some income for empty seats, and the poverty-level, Catholic Hispanic child receives a Catholic education from which the whole family benefits.
The other reason for ignoring the Hispanic community is fear. How will the addition of Hispanics affect the school’s current culture? Will the school increase its Hispanic enrollment only to see non-Hispanic enrollments decline? How will the teachers adjust to a new culture? These concerns are harder to allay than misinformation because they are emotional and cannot be argued away with logic and statistics. The problem is that fears sometimes come true and ignoring another’s fear only creates opposition. Alleviating fear can be accomplished with careful planning, open communication and support from the pulpit and chancery. Respect the concerns. Discuss them. Allow people to plan for the worst, as long as they are open to a smoother road than they envision. Invoke our Catholic mandate to serve those in need. Enlist the help of the school’s local clergy and religious to provide credibility and confidence. Acknowledge the reality that we don’t know exactly what will happen when we try something new, but that the institution and its traditions will be protected and doing nothing is not an option.
Fear freezes people into inaction. We have to overcome that fear and create an environment that is safe and comfortable for all yet allows the institution to evolve and stay relevant.
In twenty or thirty years, Catholic administrators and teachers will look back at this pivotal time when the first generation of Hispanic immigrants made decisions that affected their children and grandchildren. Either those Catholic educators will applaud the foresight and courage of their early 21st century predecessors, or they will wonder. “What were they thinking?” as a whole culture of devout Catholics was shut out of the Catholic educational system.