St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School is the only Catholic school in Port Arthur, Texas in the Diocese of Beaumont. Almost 70 percent of the students are from underserved minority groups, with the majority of the students living in economically disadvantaged homes. The Hispanic population is rapidly increasing in Southeast Texas, and today there are an estimated 84,000 Hispanics living within the diocesan borders.

In 2014 St. Catherine School, with the help of its dynamic principal Haidee Todora, turned to the Latino Enrollment Institute for support in enrolling this growing demographic. Catholic Extension subsidized Haidee’s participation in the LEI at the University of Notre Dame. This program identifies and assists Catholic schools with a substantial unmet capacity and motivates principals by teaching them and select faculty leaders how to transform their schools to attract and serve Latino students more effectively.

In this picture, principal Haidee Todora is shown kneeling to the right of Irene Martinez, an office aide she hired to help as an interpreter. Martinez is certified as a school teacher in Mexico but not in the United States, so her education background has made her a perfect fit for St. Catherine of Siena.

In the six years since Haidee has been principal, the number of Latino students attending St. Catherine has increased by 64 percent. Read Haidee Todora’s reflection on her experience below.

St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School is the last remaining Catholic school of the 13 southern vicariate parishes in the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas. The school first opened in 1961 and has changed dramatically in its demographics over the past 20 years. Today the school is wonderfully diverse with 42 percent Latino, 25 percent Asian, 23 percent African American and 10 percent Caucasian students.

Affording the opportunity for any family wishing to educate their child at St. Catherine School has always been my goal, but it was not until I started working with the University of Notre Dame’s Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) that I became aware of the intense need to reach out to our growing Latino population. LEI has taught me so much about the Latino culture and their beliefs on the importance of family.

I knew the first step I needed to take was to surround myself with loyal employees who understood both the culture and the language. I needed to educate myself on the differences in the Latino culture and understand their beliefs and how to make them feel welcome. I reached out to my current Latino employees and met with them to gain some insight and understanding so I could move forward knowledgeably. I began to understand more about the role of the mother and father in regards to education and also the financial responsibilities each family faced. It became much clearer to me how important the role of family in the Latino community was. As someone on the outside, I would only be given one chance to gain people’s trust.

Having this basic knowledge and insight allowed me to communicate and gain the Latino community’s trust through understanding. I began soliciting the help of staff members to reach out by word-of-mouth, family and friends, phone calls, advertisements in Spanish newspapers and radio, and leaders of the community speaking at local Spanish Masses.

We started a gathering of families, an event called “Kermes,” which brought our Latino families together in a familiar and comfortable atmosphere. School documents and registration information were translated into Spanish, cards were given out in Spanish with reasons why Catholic education is so important, and Church bulletin inserts were published in Spanish with events happening at the school. Last year I hired an English as a Second Language (ESL) aide to work with students who struggle with English in the classroom, and this year I hired an office aide to answer phone calls and interpret for families needing assistance.

Working with the Latino Enrollment Institute program has definitely made a huge impact on the turnaround in increased Latino enrollment at St. Catherine of Siena School by giving us the tools to reach out and collaborate.

Thank you to the LEI program and Catholic Extension for making this opportunity possible.

Catholic Extension helped fund Haidee Todora's training through the Latino Enrollment Institute at the University of Notre Dame. Click below to help other principals learn to lead growing Catholic schools. 

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