The Working Catholic: Broken Ladders

— by Bill Droel

Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, grew up in a small Texas town. There were six Mexican-American families on his block and others nearby. One large family “was unique,” writes Ramirez, a member of the Basilian Fathers, in Power from the Margins: the Emergence of the Latino in the Church and in Society (Orbis Books, 2016). How was this family unique? “They gave high priority to school.”

All parents want the best education for their children. But all families are simultaneously nurtured by and restrained by their environment. An environment that has responsive institutions and thick supportive networks makes it easier for a family to be successful, whole and holy. By contrast, an environment with unaccountable institutions in a relational desert requires extraordinary effort to gain success, wholeness and holiness. There has been deterioration in the “family environments” for Puerto Ricans, Dominican-Americans and Mexican-Americans over the past 40-years, says Ramirez. A glaring symptom of this deterioration is a high dropout rate.
Latinos have the highest high school dropout rate; double the black rate. As Ramirez implies, this rate has grown by about 50% during his 40-year timeline. Of those in college, the majority do not attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling. Of those Latinos who begin at a community college over 75% do not earn a bachelor’s degree even within eight years. These attrition rates come at a time when a degree is the primary economic ladder.

Ramirez profiles a handful of small though suggestive experiments designed to improve the education completion rate for Latinos. Cristo Rey High School Network is sponsored by the Jesuits. There are about 30 of these schools with perhaps 300 students in each. Each student is matched with an employer—someone identified through Jesuit contacts among the order’s alumni and friends. The student is employed at least five days per month at the company or firm. Often a mentor relationship emerges through the employment. There is, as befitting any Jesuit school, rigorous classroom study and homework.
Nativity Miguel Network drew inspiration from the Jesuit experiment. It gained momentum from the De LaSalle Christian Brothers. It has 64 middle schools that require extended hours in the classroom during the week. These schools also have a longer academic schedule. The graduates are monitored/mentored into high school.
Ramirez also mentions the Alliance for Catholic Education at University of Notre Dame. As part of their degree program, some Notre Dame students teach in Catholic schools. A typical placement is in a Latino neighborhood for two years. In addition to their competence, the college students bring the social capital of their friends to the project—not only during the two years, but ideally for the near future.

The notion of social capital is critical. One student alone will not likely move up the ladder. It is only by joining lots of otherwise disparate pieces that Latinos will succeed. Cristo Rey and other promising programs know the importance of getting the entire family into the school picture. After that, success parallels the interest taken by small businesses, community organizations, parishes and more.
Social capital is not automatically accumulated; it cannot be assumed. Deliberate face-to-face encounter is necessary. Thus any intervention or program on behalf of students cannot be only about tutoring for information content. It is about the fourth R: reading, [w]riting, [a]rithmetic and relationships.
Ramirez puts the secret in faith language: Effective school programs must allow people to personally and collectively interpret their own story as “a real occasion of grace” and understand it as a contribution to “the entire church,” the whole people of God.

Footnote: The terms Hispanic and Latino are, in my opinion, political contrivances meant to put several distinct cultures into a single voting block or a concise demographic. I prefer to use a hyphenated-American style. However, in keeping with Ramirez this article uses Latino.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

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