A group of volunteer mothers, the madrinas, are helping to familiarize Latinos with Catholic schools and increase enrollment

By Patrick Mott editor, Orange County Catholic     12/3/2014

If you’re a Latino parent and you want to get the best information possible about your local Catholic school—the real stuff, the news you can use in order to make a decision about possibly enrolling your child—to whom do you turn?

How about your godmother?

That’s the essential idea behind an ambitious effort to increase enrollment of Latino children in the Catholic schools of the Diocese of Orange. It’s part of the diocese’s ongoing partnership with the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). Under the umbrella of a program called “The Catholic School Advantage,” the strategy is called the Madrinas Program and is, at its core, a marketing effort among Orange County’s Latino Catholic population—a culturally responsive grassroots approach to student recruitment that focuses on building strong relationships between prospective Latino/Hispanic families and a group of Spanish-speaking volunteers known as madrinas: Spanish for godmothers.

If that sounds familial, it’s intended to, says Sylvia Armas-Abad.

“The cornerstone of this marketing plan is to build up a parent ambassador program” with groups of women designated as madrinas, says Armas-Abad, Notre Dame’s Latino Marketing and Outreach Consultant who is in charge of the Catholic School Advantage program in the Diocese of Orange. “The role of godmother is taken so seriously in Hispanic cultures. And it doesn’t’ just mean someone who’s there are your baptism or at the other sacraments. It really is someone who guides and supports and leads you. So we look at the madrinas as sort of our shepherds. They’re helping us create interest around the schools, but they’re actually leading the families. Madrinas are there to remind fellow Catholics that, as Catholics, part of our identity is Catholic school. Historically, that’s what it’s always been in this country.”

Many Latino/Hispanic families don’t realize that, however, says Armas-Abad. In Mexico and other parts of Latin America—and also in the Philippines—“Catholic schools are for the very rich and the very elite, and most of them aren’t associated with parishes,” she says. “But in the United States, Catholic schools, historically, were built for the immigrant populations. So the madrinas are out there sharing stories about their own personal experiences with the schools and how accessible they are.”

The madrinas generally come from the ranks of mothers whose children are now attending Catholic schools in the diocese or have attended in the past. Some, says Armas-Abad, may even be grandmothers and a few are padrinos: godfathers.

The decline in enrollment in Catholic schools throughout the country in recent years “largely has to do with shifting demographics in a lot of neighborhoods and the disconnects that exist between the Latino community –particularly the immigrant Latino community—and the Catholic schools,” says Armas-Abad. However, partly as a result of the Madrinas program, the Diocese of Orange recently saw an uptick in school enrollment, particularly in Santa Ana where the program was first introduced.

By personalizing the process of introducing Latino/Hispanic families to Catholic education, a number of culturally based misconceptions are more easily overcome, says Armas-Abad: the schools are too elite or too expensive, the application process is too confusing or rigorous. And the alternative is free public education, which may not have existed in the families countries of origin.

Madrinas form personal bonds with families, walking them through processes, escorting them to school open houses, helping them with registration and applications for financial assistance, arranging campus tours. They become a familiar and friendly face of the Catholic education system.

The Madrinas program now has been implemented in 14 diocesan elementary schools, and the results have been gratifying, says Armas-Abad.

“So far,” she says, “it’s been great. The three schools that come to mind that really are on that shift are St. Joseph in Placentia, St. Justin Martyr in west Anaheim, and Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Habra. They have absolutely seen a huge increase in their Latino demographic.

“Hispanics are basically going to sustain the schools. Remember that 61 percent of the growth of the American Catholic Church since 1960 is due to the Hispanic population. So what do you think that means for the American Catholic school system? Our number one marketing strategy is word of mouth, and the madrinas are a huge piece of that.”