School focuses on improving Latino students’ grad rates


Manuel J. Brenes, San Juan Diego Academy principal, has extensively researched studies on Latino educational attainment in the United States. Photo by Johnny Quirin

San Juan Diego Academy has a history of helping immigrant students succeed.

For more than 100 years, the school — until a few years ago, operating under the name Holy Name of Jesus — helped the children of Italian, Polish, German and Irish immigrants adapt and excel in West Michigan.

The parochial school began to see its surrounding neighborhood change in more recent years, becoming a destination for many Latino families new to the area.

The Chicago Drive/Grandville corridor has a burgeoning Latino population, said Elizabeth Heys, San Juan Diego Academy development officer.

“Catholic schools have always had the mission and vision to serve immigrant children,” Heys said. “The shifting population in that neighborhood really gave pause to what are the needs of the community, what are the needs of these families and these children, and can we do a better job as a Catholic school in serving those folks.”

Studies have shown children of Latino immigrants have alarmingly low high school graduation rates and few will go on to receive a college education.

“Unfortunately, of those Latino children who began at the elementary level, only 40 percent of them will graduate from high school and about 11 percent of high school graduates will go on to postsecondary school,” said Manuel J. Brenes, Ph.D., San Juan Diego Academy principal, who has extensively researched studies on Latino educational attainment in the United States.

San Juan Diego Academy noted on its website that 50 percent of Latino students in Michigan graduate from high school each year.

Interestingly, a study conducted by the University of Notre Dame suggests Latino children who attend Catholic school are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to graduate from college than their peers who attend public school.

Studies have indicated several contributing factors specific to the success or failure of Latino immigrant students: level of personal motivation, level of personal pride, amount of parental support, adequate school programs and the impact of peers.

Latino students who perform poorly in school often experience a lack of personal motivation, limited educational aspirations, family dynamics that negatively impact learning, lack of school involvement and an unsympathetic school environment where their specific needs are not being met.

Armed with that knowledge and based on the shifting demographics of its neighborhood, just over four years ago Holy Name of Jesus underwent a significant transition, becoming San Juan Diego Academy and adjusting its mission to focus specifically on immigrant Latino children.

The new school is an inter-parochial partnership, serving students from the Holy Name of Jesus, St. Joseph the Worker, St. Andrew Cathedral, St. Francis Xavier and Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Our Lady of Sorrows parishes.

“They are the parishes with the highest population of Latinos,” Heys said.

San Juan Diego Academy does several things differently than other schools, which, based on the studies available, it expects will have a positive impact on student graduation rates and increase the number of students applying to and getting accepted into college.

First, the academic day is longer, running from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The extra classroom time is helpful to students. Second, most of the teachers have five years of teaching experience or more. Third, the school requires parental involvement.

“We can’t run the school and keep tuition down if we hire everything out,” Heys said. “So there is a high reliance on parents to participate, not only in their child’s academic progress but also in the general upkeep and support of the school. They hold fundraisers, paint, clean, run copies and work the lunch room.”

Heys said seeing their moms and dads working to keep the school going in its day-to-day operation fills students with a greater sense of responsibility to the community.

Finally, Heys said the school encourages students to take pride in their native culture and their bilingual abilities.

“At San Juan Diego, there is no embarrassment in speaking Spanish,” she said. “You want to retain that and retain the dignity of that core culture, while at the same time learning English and being academically superior in that language.”

Heys said many earlier immigrant groups saw their native language and culture as something that needed to be abandoned. Often immigrant parents would not even allow their children to speak anything but English at home.

The school also offers ESL classes for parents so they can learn or improve their English skills.

Heys said the school would like to conduct a longitudinal study to be able to see how well its model is working, but currently it does not have the necessary funding. Instead, it is relying on anecdotal evidence, trying to keep track of where its students end up.

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