Carmen Villasenor Santiago felt lost when her family came to the U.S. from Mexico one summer in the mid-2000s. She was heading into the sixth grade. "It tore apart the world I knew," she said. She had a difficult time navigating a new country and new language.
Once her family got settled, Santiago was able to enroll at St. Matthias, a small, all-girl Catholic high school in Downey, thanks to financial assistance.
She thrived there, graduating with honors in 2012, and is now majoring in business administration at a four-year university. "There I found a true home," she said of St. Matthias. "I grew as a young woman and met the friends I knew would last forever."
It's a strong example of the benefits a Catholic education can bring, especially for students facing challenging circumstances, said Karen Huchting. She's an assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles' long-standing Catholic university rooted in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions. Huchting works within LMU's School of Education, whose graduates often end up in L.A.'s Catholic schools teaching students like Santiago.
"Seeing that the students who attend these Catholic schools are doing so well academically makes us proud of our work in training the teachers and administrators who work in these schools," Huchting said.
Keeping the tradition of spiritual learning alive while adapting to a 21st century landscape is at the heart of the mission taken up by the Center for Catholic Education at LMU. An umbrella for the university's wide-ranging programs preparing educators and administrators for positions at Catholic schools, the CCE provides professional development for future educators and community outreach to serve the 106,000 or so students in Southern California seeking a Catholic school education and their families.
"Its primary mission is to provide leadership and support for Catholic schools so that they thrive as a viable educational option for all learners," said Shane Martin, dean of LMU's School of Education. "The CCE is a comprehensive center that focuses on all aspects driving success in a Catholic school, from strong leadership, excellent teaching, effective research and outreach about the value of Catholic schools — not just for the Catholic community, but for all of society."
A diverse student body
The CCE prepares educators for the needs of Southern California's Catholic school students, many of whom live in disadvantaged yet ethnically diverse communities and rely on these private institutions — and often financial assistance — as a way out of overcrowded and underperforming schools. Many Catholic schools administered by the L.A. Archdiocese are in inner-city areas, Huchting said. Close to half of the students identify as Latino.
A Catholic school education can have a positive impact on academic achievement, according to a study conducted by the CCE in partnership with the Catholic Education Foundation, which has provided more than 110,000 tuition awards since 1987, totaling over $108 million.
The study followed nearly 600 students living below the poverty line who received aid from the foundation, including Carmen Villasenor Santiago. Inability to pay is the only factor in awarding the foundation scholarships. Academic potential and past performance aren't considered.
The study found that these 600 students significantly outperformed their public school counterparts: 100% graduated high school in 2012 and 96% were accepted into college. By comparison, the LAUSD graduation rate was 67% for the same year. (According to the study, LAUSD college acceptance rates were unavailable for 2012.)
"The results overwhelmingly show that attending a Catholic school better prepared these students for college," said Huchting, the lead researcher for the study.
Established in 2010, the CCE hosts graduate, credential and certificate programs, as well as workshops, events and expert speakers that bring local schools together to address issues facing today's Catholic school educators.
The Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education program trains future teachers in under-resourced Archidocese schools. The Catholic Archdiocesan School Teachers program addresses the needs of full-time K-12 educators. The Catholic School Leadership Academy prepares future principals for Catholic schools.
Reaching out to the community, the CCE also provides direct faculty support for local Catholic schools, Huchting said, including help with technology, assessment practices and professional development.
"This is just one example of our LMU mission in action," she said. "Faculty do not simply remain at the university — rather, we are actively involved in these community schools."