When the new school year begins in late August, school officials at St. Frances Academy, Baltimore, expect to see a more racially diverse enrollment with the addition of several Hispanic students, ending a two-year interlude with an all-black student body.
It’s the first time in its 179-year history that St. Frances Academy officials have actively recruited students, which they did with a concerted effort to enlist Hispanic teens.
“The Hispanic population in this state and this country is growing by leaps and bounds,” said David Owens, a tennis coach and teacher at the school who was educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the same religious order that runs St. Frances Academy. “This school was founded by people of Hispanic origin and we’ve had Latino students here in the past. But, that element has kind of taken a back seat to children of African decent.”
St. Frances Academy was founded in 1828 in part by Mother Mary Lange, the Caribbean-born black nun – whose canonization is currently under Vatican consideration. Mother Lange helped establish the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first Catholic religious order of American women of color.
The school was approached by the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs to recruit Latino students to provide this growing population with quality educational opportunities.
The inner-city school, located near the Maryland Penitentiary and Central Booking, was seen as desirable because of its track-record of academic success among minority students who are often from low-income families, said Haydee Rodriguez, executive director of the Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
Approximately 90 percent of St. Frances Academy graduates enroll in college, said Sister Marcia Hall, O.S.P., principal of the school, who emphasized that a majority of them are first-generation college students in their families.
Their approach is to offer rigorous academics, strict discipline, uniform code and tough love, Mr. Owens said. “We want kids who want to be here and want to learn. Once we have them, we provide them with the tools to learn, the time to mature and the opportunity to succeed.”
But, the rules have to be followed, which was evident on a recent morning when several students were sent to the office because of uniform violations and one student – who had been warned the day before – was told to call a parent to bring in the proper attire, or she was going to be sent home for the day.
“They have a phenomenal record in terms of their graduation rate, but also in terms of the high-level of discipline and requirements for quality work from the kids,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “They know how to motivate kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks.”
It’s the kind of environment that is needed for Hispanic students, many of whom are very bright, but lack a family structure that promotes solid academic habits, she said.
Baltimore Archbishop Cardinal William H. Keeler has made it a priority to grant financial assistance to deserving Hispanic students accepted into Catholic schools within the archdiocese.
About 75 percent of the 320 students enrolled at St. Frances Academy receive some sort of financial assistance for the annual $6,300 tuition, the second-lowest among archdiocesan high schools, Sister Marcia said.
“I think the cardinal is a very smart man,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “He knows education is truly the one venue that opens doors and that opens opportunities. The more we invest to give kids education, the better off we will be as a society.”
Though the incoming Hispanic students may end two years of all-black student enrollment at St. Frances Academy, having a diversified population is not new to the school, Mr. Owens said.
In the past the student body has included Hispanic and white teenagers, but those numbers have paled in comparison to its black population.
In an effort to head off any racial tensions that may occur by the new recruits, school officials have enlisted the aid of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, which will help school officials and the students embrace a multi-cultural future, Sister Marcia said.
“Of course, there is going to be an adjustment when students look around and see others who may not look like them,” she said. “But in a lot of ways, the Latino population can identify with the same challenges the black population faces in society.”
The school also has a multi-culture faculty, many of whom speak fluent Spanish, Sister Marcia said.