January 29, 2021

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Schools reap blessings from growth in diversity

Ruth San, second from right, kneels in prayer during a Feb. 2, 2020, Mass at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis. She is one of more than 250 Burmese students enrolled in the school of the Indianapolis South Deanery faith community. (Submitted photo by Steve Raymer)

Ruth San, second from right, kneels in prayer during a Feb. 2, 2020, Mass at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis. She is one of more than 250 Burmese students enrolled in the school of the Indianapolis South Deanery faith community. (Submitted photo by Steve Raymer)

By Sean Gallagher

Beginning in the mid-19th century, classrooms in Catholic schools across the U.S. began to be filled with the children of immigrants who sought freedom and economic opportunity in America.

During the past decade, this has begun to happen again in parish schools across central and southern Indiana, including St. Mark the Evangelist School in Indianapolis and St. Bartholomew School in Columbus.

In 2009, St. Mark had about 165 students. Today, it has an enrollment of 455, with more than 250 of those students being the children of Burmese refugees who fled religious persecution and conflict in their native Myanmar in southeast Asia.

“We had a lot of extra room in 2009,” said Rusty Albertson, St. Mark’s principal, with a laugh. “Now we have no extra room.”

St. Bartholomew’s enrollment has also increased and become more ethnically diverse. In the 2011-12 school year, about 11% of St. Bartholomew’s students were Hispanic. Today, that number stands at 45%. There are also children enrolled whose parents came from many Asian and African countries to work in Columbus for employers there.

“We’ve always been a welcoming community,” said Helen Heckman, St. Bartholomew’s principal. “But even more so now, because we are so diverse. People can see that we’re welcoming.”

‘Here, we are treated equally’

Angela Dim is grateful for the welcome that she and so many other Burmese have experienced at St. Mark. Resettled in Indianapolis in 2009, Dim now has two children enrolled at St. Mark and hopes to have her youngest child enter its pre-kindergarten class next year. She also works in the school’s office and as an education assistant.

“Here, we are treated equally with American citizens and we can get a good education,” said Dim. “We thank God for that.”

That’s important for Dim because in Myanmar, she and her fellow Catholics and other Christians in the Chin state have strict limits placed on their educational and employment opportunities because of their faith.

About a decade ago, many Burmese refugees fleeing such persecution began to be re-settled on Indianapolis’ southside where St. Mark is located. About 20,000 Burmese now live on the southside.

Father Timothy Wyciskalla, St. Mark’s pastor, grew up in the area at a time when it did not nearly have the ethnic diversity it has gained in recent years.

“The southside went from having a very small number of Burmese residents to having one of the largest Burmese communities in the United States in a relatively short time,” he said. “To see this added level of diversity and vibrancy on the southside has really been remarkable.”

It also called for a response by St. Mark Parish, one that Father Wyciskalla is proud to have witnessed and helped lead during the past two years.

“Though our cultures are very different, the faith unites us all,” he said. “Along with the universal nature of the Church, we have also always had a preferential option for the refugee, the immigrant and those in need. When the Burmese community first arrived here on the southside, they fit that description and found a community at St. Mark willing to welcome them. This is fundamental to who we are, and this beautiful aspect of the Church has been on full display at St. Mark.”

Albertson has led St. Mark School since 2009. He began to see the large influx of Burmese students into the school a few years later when Indiana launched its Indiana Choice Scholarships, more commonly known as the voucher program.

The quick change in demographics at St. Mark presented challenges to its staff. Albertson recalled veteran teachers coming to him about them.

“ ‘What are we going to do? They don’t speak English,’ ” Albertson recalled them saying. “I said, ‘We’re going to teach them.’ ”

St. Mark soon hired a part-time English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. It now has a full-time ESL teacher and three other teachers called interventionists who work full time with ESL students to help them with particular subjects.

Overall, St. Mark went from having 15 staff members in 2009 to 45 now. It had one classroom per grade in 2009. Now it has two.

That led to the challenge of finding space for all the students.

St. Mark Parish is now in the midst of a capital campaign that, among other things, will fund the addition of two classrooms to its school.

“The growth that this parish has seen over the last 10 years or so is incredible, both in parish families and in the school,” Father Wyciskalla said. “The introduction of the Burmese community to St. Mark was like a shot in the arm for the parish.”

Although Indiana’s voucher program has played a key role in the growth of St. Mark School, Albertson said that a number of parents of Burmese students who came to Indiana as refugees have now secured such well-earning jobs that they don’t qualify economically for a voucher.

In any case, he said, the high value that Burmese place on a Catholic education for their children is what is driving the enrollment changes at St. Mark.

“Even if the vouchers went away, I don’t think the Burmese students would go away,” Albertson said. “I think they would find a way to keep them here.”

Having moved to the southside when the Burmese community there was small, Dim is now glad to see her children and so many others from Myanmar enrolled as students at St. Mark.

“I’m hoping that the future for my children will be very good,” she said. “They have the opportunity to go to a Catholic school. They can learn good from bad and become smart. When they grow up, they’ll be someone.”

‘We feel safe in a Catholic school’

Like St. Mark, the demographic changes at St. Bartholomew have in part been affected by the state’s voucher program.

But Heckman noted that the Columbus school had a strong scholarship program before the voucher program was launched.

“Parishioners have stepped up, because they know [the school] is important,” she said. “They want to give anyone who values a Catholic education a chance to come to St. Bartholomew.”

Paula Lamadrid placed a high value on Catholic education when she and her husband enrolled their eldest child at St. Bartholomew in 2007.

She had attended a Catholic school in her native Mexico. Her husband, an employee of the Columbus-based Cummins, was transferred from Mexico to Columbus 20 years ago. Their two sons were born here, and the spouses became naturalized U.S. citizens three years ago.

Lamadrid’s oldest child became a student at St. Bartholomew long before there was a large presence of Hispanic students there. She arranged for speakers to come to the school to help the students and teachers appreciate the particular cultural and religious traditions of the Hispanic community.

“I wanted to show them more diversity and to help them learn more from other countries,” Lamadrid said. “Anytime we had the chance, we’d show them our traditions and also embrace the traditions of this country that we love so much.”

Among the Hispanic traditions now observed at St. Bartholomew are Dia de los Muertos (which happens on All Souls Day), Las Posadas (a novena in the days leading up to Christmas) and a special emphasis on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Many Hispanic families felt drawn to enroll their children at a Catholic school, Lamadrid said, because of their high reputation in their home countries.

“If you can make the effort to send your kids to a Catholic school, it means they’re going to get the best learning experience and be prepared the best to go to college,” she said.

The fact that the schools are rooted in the Catholic faith is also key for Hispanic families, Lamadrid said.

“It’s a comfort for so many of our international families and perhaps especially for our Hispanic families,” she said. “We feel safe in a Catholic school because it’s the faith that we know and share.”

The introduction of so many students from countries around the world during the past decade to St. Bartholomew has been a challenge to the school’s staff. But it’s one that Heckman has embraced with enthusiasm.

“It’s amazing to see teachers welcome a family and not give a second thought to who they might be or whether or not they speak English,” Heckman said. “They just accept whoever is in front of them and make them feel welcome.”

Retired Father Clement Davis was pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish when the faith community’s school began experiencing a significant growth in the diversity of its student body, and saw it on display in a special way at school Masses.

“You’d have children coming up to do the readings and the prayers of the faithful, and you can have three or four different racial or ethnic backgrounds represented in the half dozen kids that come up,” Father Davis recalled. “You could see at a school Mass the diversity of the universal Church and the diversity of the world’s population represented right there in the church.” †


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