Many churches and schools are currently facing changes in demographics. A community that was once homogenous may now have an influx of families moving in, and these families may represent different cultures. In some communities the average age is increasing. In yet other areas, the high cost of living has resulted in families moving from the city to the suburbs, where the neighborhood may be more affordable. All of these cultural, economic and demographic changes have an impact on both school enrollment and parish attendance. New and more specifically targeted strategies may be necessary when welcoming new families into an area. It is important to be sensitive and responsive both to the needs of the families moving in and of those traditional families who remain.
Many of our Catholic schools and parish religious education programs have a history of serving students from just one culture. Learning is social and we learn from one another. So it is critical that, as demographics and populations change and evolve, the cultures of all school and parish families are respected and celebrated throughout the life of the community.
The quality of cultural responsiveness must be cultivated, since it is linked so closely to customer service and engagement. In other words, prospective families should be made to feel welcomed by the community as an integral part of the school and/or parish family. This experience, above all others, will resonate with prospective families and support their consideration of enrollment/attendance. How is cultural responsiveness put into practice? Here are some suggestions:
- Translation assistance should be available to help parents through the application process, and material (financial aid forms, enrollment applications) should be available in multiple languages.
- Different cultural traditions could be integrated into the school calendar: for example, Hispanic Heritage celebrations, Our Lady of Guadalupe imagery, Black History Month, Casimir Pulaski Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, Lunar New Year, and Irish Step Dancing among others.
In schools and parish religious education programs:
- Faculty and staff should be encouraged to learn about the cultures represented in the classrooms and to acquire the language skills needed to better communicate with them.
- Culturally religious imagery should be displayed to recognize special feast days, rituals, and cultural heritage months.
- The membership of the School Board, Home and School Association, Parish Council, and key school/parish committees should represent the different cultures who comprise the community, giving them a “voice.”
In the school environment, some policies may have to change to accommodate new cultures. Suggestions may include:
- Expanding school volunteer requirements to include extended family members
- Scheduling bi-lingual financial aid workshops
- Offering new tuition models, along with necessary tuition assistance
- Allowing people to utilize flexible payment schedules (weekly/monthly) and/or to pay in cash
- Hosting parent conferences and admission events on evenings and weekends.
- Providing professional development including language training and/or a cultural mentor
Another way to welcome new families is to open the school and/or church as a community center, providing programs and events for the local residents. The more people come into the school and church, the more enrollment and parish membership may grow. For example, events such as parenting
workshops can be viewed as a “value added” by prospective families.
When schools market to different cultures, there should be ads in both languages targeted to the specific audience. The culture of that specific audience must be taken into consideration as well. For
example, the Hispanic/Latino culture is very diverse, including Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Guatemalans, among others. The same is true about communicating with different parish cultures – a note in the parish bulletin in their own language can go a long way in making someone feel included and welcomed.
The most important consideration when responding to different cultures is to make the school and parish environment a warm and welcoming one. Seek input from all families to learn how to best serve them, then encourage and foster connections among families. Remember to acknowledge the things all families have in common and celebrate the contributions each culture can bring to the community.