Neil Hulsewede grew up in Louisville, where he attended Our Lady of Lourdes’ elementary school and Trinity High School. Although he graduated from Indiana University Southeast with a Music Business degree, teaching private guitar lessons convinced him that his future lay in education. After earning a master’s in teaching, he taught at St. Raphael Elementary School for five years. He also found a mentor in the late Paul DeZarn, who was principal for 40 years. “As I developed an interest in school administration, he provided me with opportunities to gain experience in school leadership,” Mr. Hulsewede said. Inspired, he entered Bellarmine’s intensive 13-month EdS (principal) program for school administration, graduating in August 2013. “Some of the many qualities I gained from the program that influenced my style and practices include effective data analysis and school improvement; systemic thinking; collaboration through professional learning communities; and taking initiative to reach out to the broader community.” At St. Rita, where he’s in his third year as principal, he soon put that community outreach into practice when he realized the Latino community was underrepresented.
Why did you feel strongly that this issue should be addressed?
When I began as principal of St. Rita, I was invited to introduce myself at each of the weekend masses. One of those was the Sunday Latino mass, which St. Rita has offered since 1998 to accommodate the growing Latino population in the Okolona area. Out of all the masses I attended that weekend, the Latino mass was by far the largest; it was standing room only. There also were many children in attendance. However, once the school year began, I noticed that there was hardly a Latino presence among our student population: only 7% out of approximately 200 students. The school did not reflect the overall makeup of the church at St. Rita.
Going into my second year as principal, I began to look more closely at our enrollment data. The overall enrollment was on a 5-year decline, from over 300 students in 2009 to just under 200 students by 2014. It made sense to target the Latino population in order to recruit prospective school families and reverse the enrollment decline. With this goal came two challenges: How were we going to accommodate the financial needs of our Latino families so that they could afford the Catholic school tuition? And how could we welcome our Latino families into the school, and make them feel comfortable?
What steps did you take to address those challenges?
In order to meet the cultural barrier, the school began collaborating with some of our bilingual Latino families. I began visiting the Latino masses, speaking about our school with the help of a translator. I made sure the message was clear to our Latino families that if this church is your church, and the school is a part of this church, then the school should also be your school. I made our part-time Spanish teacher, Nelly García, a full-time employee by also making her the school’s Latino Liaison. Ms. García’s new role has been vital in our success. She meets with families to address specific questions and helps families with the enrollment process, which includes walking them through the Catholic Education Found-ation’s tuition assistance application. Ms. García also translates many school documents into Spanish, such as our weekly electronic newsletter.
Also, the school leadership team strategically planned for a successful 2015 Open House. We provided “save the date” mailers in English and Spanish; recruited bilingual parent volunteers; and set up electronic pre-registration and tuition assistance forms in our computer lab. The January Open House had the biggest turnout in recent history. More than 30 families visited and 21 students enrolled for the 2015-16 school year that day. By the beginning of this new school year, 61 new students had joined St. Rita, which gave us the largest enrollment increase in the Archdiocese of Louisville. The majority of these new students were Latino, which increased our overall Latino population by 25%.
This is a national issue, not just a local one, right? How is that affecting Catholic education?
Yes! Catholic schools nationwide have about half as many students as they did 50 years ago. There has also been a huge demographic shift within the Catholic Church. Latinos now represent approximately 70% of all practicing Catholics under the age of 35, according to the Notre Dame Task Force report To Nurture the Soul of a Nation, published in 2009. Because Catholic schools in Latin America typically serve only the elite members of society, many low- and middle-income Latino families in the United States don’t even consider them an educational option for their children. For these reasons, if Catholic schools nationwide are to remain a viable option for providing quality education based on Catholic principles and values, it may be time to start rethinking how to welcome and accommodate all ethnicities. To me, this is what it means to be Catholic, and what reflects the core values of St. Rita School.
Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org