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Dwindling Catholic Schools
See Future in Latino Students

BY AARON SCHRANK                                                                                      ©2013 Religion News Service

Martha Rodriguez always thought Catholic school was expensive and out of reach--not a place for her kids. But when the time came to send her daughter to the same public middle school she'd struggled at decades earlier, Rodriguez decided to check out what the church had to offer.

"I was intimidated, I thought everyone there would be rich," said Rodriguez, the daughter of first-generation Mexican immigrants. "But when I went, I was surprised--and kicking myself for not sending my kids sooner."

Rodriguez now spends $800 a month to send two of her children to Catholic schools in Los Angeles. Her husband works as a paralegal, and she's out of work, so tuition cuts into the family budget. But Rodriguez says it's worth it to give her kids opportunities she never had.

In a survey by the conservative think tank Lexington Institute, the majority of Spanish-speaking churchgoers with children believed Catholic school was "elite" and unaffordable. For many, including the 28 percent of U.S. Latinos who live in poverty, it is.

But the Catholic school system is working to change those perceptions--and it could be part of turning the troubled school system around.

As the country's fastest-growing population, Latinos now make up nearly 40 percent of all U.S. Catholics, but represent less than 14 percent of students at Catholic schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

In the past decade, 16 percent of U.S. Catholic schools have closed, dropping from 8,114 to 6,841. Enrollment nationwide has declined 23 percent-driven by competition from charter schools, fallout from the church's sex abuse scandals and changing demographics.

Catholic leaders now tout Latino outreach as one answer to the system's problems. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called on its schools to increase Latino outreach in a 2005 statement. Since then, dioceses around the country--including Boston, Cincinnati and Phoenix--have launched initiatives.

At the forefront of this effort is the Catholic School Advantage campaign, organized by the University of Notre Dame. It aims to double the number of Latinos in Catholic schools nationwide. The campaign works closely with parish schools in cities with large Latino populations, including New York, San Antonio and Los Angeles.

"We've just taken it for granted that people will come," said Sylvia Armas-Abad, the program's Los Angeles field correspondent. "And at one point in our history, they did--they ran to our doors. That's no longer how it is."

In some parts of the country, efforts to bring Latinos into Catholic classrooms involve making traditionally Anglo-Catholic schools more culturally accessible. In Los Angeles--where the majority of Catholic schoolteachers and students are Latino and the Virgin of Guadalupe adorns most classrooms--efforts are focused on persuading low-income parents that Catholic education is a worthwhile investment.


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