Latino families find a home in Catholic schools

Sergio Hernandez couldn’t be happier with his decision – along with his wife, Maria – to place their daughters at Mercy High School in Omaha.

“Mayela has evolved and matured with that community,” said Hernandez, a member of Assumption-Guadalupe Parish in Omaha, of their senior at Mercy. “She makes positive decisions for herself and her younger sister (Melany, a sophomore). It’s been great.”

The Hernandez family is just one of many Latino families who have found an academic and spiritual home for their children in the archdiocese’s 17 Catholic high schools, which this school year are serving more than 300 Hispanic students. Latino families also are finding their way to the archdiocese’s elementary schools, placing more than 1,500 Hispanic students in the archdiocese’s 54 grade schools.

Several Hispanic students came to St. Mary School in Wayne, for example, after school officials met last spring with a Spanish-speaking Bible study group at St. Mary Parish and made other efforts. The school of 53 students – up 12 from last year’s 41 students – now is 13 percent Latino, versus last year’s 7 percent, said Stacy Uttecht, principal. 

Among concerns the school has allayed is the cost of tuition, which is offset by financial assistance including the Children’s Scholarship Fund, Uttecht said.

Mercy High School also meets cost concerns head-on, with a policy of negotiated tuition that each year helps more than 82 percent its 362 students, school officials said. 

And the students are loving it. 

Mayela said she wants to forge a career in the health field, and she appreciates the rigorous academic environment at Mercy. She also is growing in her faith, taking advantage of opportunities that have included volunteering as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and participating in an annual summer retreat for juniors, called Kairos.

“It was a very necessary point, I think, for me and God,” said Mayela, who now keeps a daily journal and finds other avenues for prayer.

Mayela is one of 66 Latino students at Mercy, an all-girls school served by the Sisters of Mercy. Another is Shacty Alvarez-Hurtado, also a senior, who is diving into school and her faith. Both students chose a Catholic high school after attending a public elementary school. 

“In the public school system, I couldn’t express my faith,” Shacty said. “Now we pray at the beginning of class. I feel more connected to my faith because I went to Mercy.” 

Chosen by her classmates for the honor of portraying Mother Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, in an annual school play, Shacty also is a member of the school’s pastoral council and pro-life club, plays on the tennis team and was class secretary her sophomore and junior years.

Efforts at Mercy High to attract more Latino students like Shacty and Mayela included hiring a specialist this year in English as a second language, said Deborah Daley, a spokeswoman for the school. Katherine Davis is helping students who know English, but might struggle with difficult concepts in any number of courses, such as geometry, Daley said.

Word is spreading among Hispanic families about Mercy High School, she said.

“I think word of mouth has been very strong,” Daley said. “Girls see families being successful. We build confident women here.”

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