After reading a book called “Funny Things,” Mary Davis handed out notebooks and asked her three first-grade students to pick their own funny thing to write about.

Davis’ pull-out session in a lower level room of Sts. Peter and Paul School at 36th and X Streets was intended to help bolster the literacy skills of her young students, all of whom speak Spanish as their first language. After the little ones were done, a handful of fourth-graders trooped in.

Such lessons, said Principal Cory Sepich, are just one of the steps that Sts. Peter and Paul is taking as part of the Omaha Archdiocese’s efforts to reach deeper into South Omaha’s Latino community.

The archdiocese committed to greater outreach in 2012 after seeing that the growing Latino population, which is heavily Catholic, was underrepresented in its schools. Its new schools superintendent reaffirmed the goal after he was hired in 2013.

Now the archdiocese has hired its first Latino school enrollment coordinator, a move intended to bolster those efforts and to aid pastors and principals like Sepich.

Beatriz Arellanes’ twin focuses will be to reach out to more Latino families and to help raise funds to defray tuition costs.

A former businesswoman and teacher, Arellanes came to Omaha from Mexico five years ago with her husband, a food industry executive, and their two children. The couple already have been helping with enrollment efforts in an informal way at their children’s schools, volunteering at open houses, leading tours, helping with the language. They served on the school board at St. Thomas More School, and Arellanes’ husband currently serves on an enrollment committee at Creighton Prep, where their son is a sophomore.

Arellanes said the church is the first institution people identify with when they arrive from another country. The Mass essentially is the same in English and Spanish.

But newer arrivals often don’t know about Catholic schools, which typically were not available or were out of reach financially in their home countries. “They don’t know there are people who can help them enroll (here), or they think it’s too expensive,” she said.

Arellanes already has visited Sts. Peter and Paul a number of times and appeared with Sepich on a forum broadcast on Radio Lobo, a Spanish-language station in Omaha. The school began advertising on the station about a month ago, and several Latino families from the school have been interviewed. The school has gotten calls every time a family has appeared.

“The biggest advocates for Catholic schools are our families,” Sepich said.

Making personal connections is among the strategies for increasing Latino enrollment laid out in a report published by the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, which has been advising dioceses across the country.

“Ten years ago, the words ‘Latino’ and ‘Catholic schools’ wouldn’t be in the same sentence,” said the Rev. Joseph Corpora, director of university-school partnerships with the alliance. “Now everyone is talking about (it) and moving on it.”

Corpora spoke at an archdiocese luncheon in Omaha two years ago, and archdiocese officials have consulted with him since. Sepich, Arellanes and Patrick Slattery, the archdiocese’s schools superintendent, hope to attend enrollment institutes at Notre Dame this summer.

In addition to reaching out to Latino families, the school also has been working to welcome and support them, an effort that began after a realignment of the archdiocese’s southeast Omaha schools.

Three schools closed in May 2013, including Assumption-Guadalupe, where the enrollment was majority Latino. A number of staff and families moved to Sts. Peter and Paul, which became part of a new five-school consortium with a common governance.

Sepich said Sts. Peter and Paul has changed its mission statement, which hadn’t been revised since the mid-1980s, to reflect its two cultures — the Croatian and Bohemian immigrants who were its first students and the Latinos who now live in the neighborhood.

In the recently renovated lobby hangs a new picture of St. Joseph the Worker, patron saint of Croatia and of Mexico and a representation of the strong work ethic that area residents still pride themselves in.

And there are two portraits of the Rev. Blase Cupich, the newly installed Archbishop of Chicago and grandson of Croatian immigrants who grew up nearby, graduated from the grade school and was ordained as a priest in Sts. Peter and Paul Church.

The aim, Sepich said, was to celebrate the school’s past and at the same time welcome Latino families.

“We wanted to honor our past, but not dwell in it,” Sepich said.

The school’s enrollment was about 190 students at the end of last year and had dropped to around 170 when Sepich arrived in June. It now stands at 204.

The school could have added more, he said, but he didn’t want to create too large a first-grade class. And he wanted more updates in place before adding more students.

More construction is planned for summer. The main office will move into what is now the computer lab. The former office then will become a room where families can use the fax machine or computers. The resource and extended care room where Davis works with small groups will become a new library and media center.

“It’s still a work in progress, but we’re getting there,” Sepich said.

One way of growing is by using what the Notre Dame report defines as “madrinas,” which translates to “godmothers” — Latina moms who can provide a personal connection and help guide Latino families through the system. The school already has the beginnings of a informal Madrinas program in Estela Rangel, a bilingual secretary who was among those who made the move from Assumption-Guadalupe.

Sepich said Rangel helps provide translations for families. About 80 percent of the weekly information folders the school sends home to its 130 families are in Spanish.

Corpora said Catholic schools need to get better at working with students who are just learning English. That doesn’t mean every teacher has to become bilingual, as some fear. It does, however, take preparation and instruction.

“It’s just learning how to work with kids whose first language is not English,” he said.

Sepich, 32, said Sts. Peter and Paul has adopted the leveled literacy intervention program used by the Omaha school district and many others with large numbers of English language learners. He and other staff members have consulted with ELL program leaders in OPS and visited nearby Spring Lake Magnet Center to see it at work.

Sts. Peter and Paul’s first-grade teacher already has an ELL endorsement, and Davis will seek the certification this summer. Sepich said the school also hopes to hire another resource teacher so Davis can focus on students in pre-kindergarten and primary grades. The goal is to have youngsters reading at grade level by third grade.

But in many ways, he said, the mission really hasn’t changed since the days of those earlier settlers. “The Catholic church has always been that glue for a lot of immigrants.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1223, julie.anderson@owh.com

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