January 28, 2005

2005 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Project EXCEED's Hispanic Services help Latino students

By Mary Ann Wyand

All Saints School eighth-grader Ismael Mazon of Indianapolis grew up in a Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago and lived in a primarily Spanish-speaking ­culture.

When the Mazon family moved to Indianapolis two years ago, Ismael faced many challenges as he adjusted to life in an English-speaking culture and made new friends at two schools.

Ismael’s grades dropped during his first year in Indianapolis, but last summer his parents enrolled him at All Saints School and now his grades are improving thanks to help from the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education’s Hispanic Services program made possible by Project E XCEED funding.

During a Jan. 20 interview at All Saints School, Ismael said he wants people to understand “some of the challenges, as Mexicans, [and] the challenge that it is to find an American school and the difficulties that are in the way for us to learn.”

In his Chicago neighborhood, he said, “it was all Hispanic. When I came here, it was a lot harder. My grades kind of dropped a little because in Chicago I was an A student and here I am a C, C-minus and D student. In Chicago, I was studying in a Hispanic classroom so I got more help because I didn’t really know that much English when I was there.”

Social Studies is his hardest class at All Saints School, Ismael said, but math class is easy because his teacher helps him a lot.

John Fair, the eighth-grade mathematics teacher, said last week that Ismael “has been doing really well lately.”

Ismael said he misses his old friends in Chicago, but he likes All Saints School and is thinking about attending Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis next year. He enjoys drawing and playing football, and was happy to hear that Cardinal Ritter has earned several Indiana High School Athletic Association state football titles in recent years.

“I’d really like to join the Marines,” Ismael said. “That’s [been] my dream since I was a little kid.”

Ismael said he also is considering attending a military school in Texas next year. Later, he hopes to work as a mechanic like his brother.

His parents’ families are from Mexico, and he visited his grandmothers and other relatives in Mexico City for two months last summer.

He shared memories of his trip to Mexico with Margarita Solis, coordinator of Hispanic Services for the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education, who is filming a video to help other Hispanic youth attending Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

“Ismael has agreed to talk about his life,” Solis said, “and what it means to live in two cultures and come to a Catholic school. He is sharing some of his experiences so the students can see the importance of education.”

Solis and Flor Bickel, educational specialist in Hispanic Services, work with Latino students at All Saints School and St. Philip Neri School in Indian­apolis as part of Project E XCEED’s outreach ministry.

“These positions were developed as a response to the growing Hispanic needs and population at both schools,” Solis said on Jan. 20. “The majority of our [Hispanic] students come from Mexico, although we also have some students from Honduras, Peru and Puerto Rico. A lot of [Latino] children were born in the United States, but have lived in a Spanish-speaking home for their first five years so that’s why they struggle with the English language. Some of them are bilingual, but academics is still a struggle so we work with them on those needs as well.”

About 23 percent of the students at All Saints School are Hispanic, Solis said, and St. Philip Neri School’s Latino students comprise nearly 50 percent of this year’s enrollment.

Nationally, she said, the dropout rate for Hispanic high school students is very high.

“That’s just Hispanic youth in general,” Solis said. “The rate gets even higher for those [Hispanic] students who are coming from another country into the United States when they are already in the fourth- or fifth- or sixth-grade.”

Statistics posted on the National Center for Education website indicate that the high school dropout rate for white students is 7 percent, but it jumps to 13 percent for black students and 28 percent for Hispanic youth.

“With that comes a lot of different needs,” Solis said. “We’re not only ­talking about cultural understanding—affirming their country and culture—but also language is the key [to improving Hispanic students’ high school retention rates]. Flor [Bickel] and I are really looking at students who are struggling with the [English] language, but also supporting our Hispanic youth so they realize that education is really important … if they are going to succeed in this country.”

Solis said acclimating Hispanic youth to life in a Catholic school and learning in a primarily English-speaking environment is their primary goal.

“Our job is not only to support them by giving instruction in English,” she said, “but also to support them in being successful in their education. That’s our main goal and, whatever that means, that’s our job description.”

Solis said as Hispanic children become acclimated in an American school, they often are put in the difficult position of translating conversations with their teachers and their Spanish-speaking parents.

“Oftentimes, the majority of our students’ parents do not speak English so they are put on with a lot more responsibilities,” she said. “That becomes a little bit awkward, and probably is not the most appropriate thing to do for the students. If the student is doing poorly, I’m not quite sure that translation is always getting to the parents for many different reasons. That’s a tough thing for children to say to their parents that they’re not doing well in school.”

Within the past five years, she said, the Hispanic student population has grown tremendously in archdiocesan Catholic schools.

Benedictine Sister Pamela Doyle, principal at All Saints School, said Solis and Bickel help her prepare weekly school newsletters written in English and Spanish.

The school’s mission statement reads, “All Saints Catholic School supports and challenges our diverse student body to be academically prepared, curious about learning, faithful in their spirituality and respectful of all God’s creation.”

To accomplish that goal, Sister Pamela said, school staff members must be able to serve the unique needs of every student.

“Margarita [Solis] and Flor [Bickel] have been a very powerful, very positive presence in our school,” Sister Pamela said. “It’s helped tremendously to have their presence here at All Saints, and in the archdiocese, to recognize the Hispanic families that we have in this community and how we can help meet the needs of all our students. They’ve been a godsend, … heightening the awareness of our school to the Hispanic population and resources in the community.” †


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