Valerie Serpe, head of school at Our Lady of Guadalupe campuses in Deer Park and Central Islip, talks about the Catholic school's dual-language program. Students in nursery, pre-K and first grade spend half the day studying in English and the other half in Spanish.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Enrollment at the first dual-language elementary school run by the Catholic Church on Long Island has soared by 30% as it enters its second year, while enrollment in the Catholic system in general is relatively steady, church officials said.

At the Our Lady of Guadalupe school, which has campuses in Central Islip and Deer Park, enrollment jumped from 385 to 501 between September 2021, when they first opened, and September 2022, said Valerie Serpe, who is head of the schools.

Parents are drawn by the promise of their children becoming fully bilingual in English and Spanish by eighth grade, a free before- and after-school care program, affordable tuition, and the overall strengthening of academics and faith life in Catholic elementary schools on Long Island, said Brother Thomas Cleary, who is overseeing a revitalization of the entire system.

“It’s been a great blessing,” said Serpe, who spent the summer hiring staff to handle the influx of students. The total number of dual-language classes on the two campuses jumped from two to nine.

The enrollment increase was the most dramatic jump in a system that, after years of sharp declines, is doing relatively well, given the pandemic, soaring inflation and other economic woes, said Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

Enrollment went up between the 2020-21 and the 2021-22 academic years, rising from 11,626 to 11,644, Dolan said. There was a slight decrease this academic year, to 11,350, but he said that is not bad considering numerous adverse factors.

“In 2022-23, despite the return of some students to public school post-pandemic and families moving out of New York State, and the dramatic increase in inflation, we only saw a slight reduction" in enrollment, Dolan said.

"The decrease is significantly less than over the last 10 years despite a difficult current economic environment and the impact of expanding Universal Pre-K programs in many districts," he said in a statement. 

No Catholic grammar schools have closed since 2021, Dolan said. Between 2020 and 2021, the diocese had to close five, leaving it with 31. In the 1960s, there were 92.

Cleary, who is also president of Chaminade High School in Mineola, said the schools "weathered the storms of COVID and are now taking all the hard work we’ve done and really pressing the gas full speed.”

Three years ago, his religious order, the Marianist Brothers, launched an effort to revitalize Catholic elementary schools on Long Island. Besides Chaminade, the Marianists run other respected schools, including Kellenberg Memorial High School and St. Martin de Porres Marianist School, both in Uniondale.

“Our charism, our ministry is education, and sharing best practices with the principals of the grade schools,” Cleary said. “We’ve been running schools for decades.”

Serpe said the Marianist name had attracted many families to her school and others in the system.

At the dual-language campuses, students in nursery, pre-K and first grade spend half the day studying in English and the other half in Spanish. The program will move up a grade each year until the entire school is dual language.

Students should be completely fluent in both languages when they graduate from eighth grade, Serpe said. 

The schools have a mix of children with parents whose first language is Spanish, and others with parents whose first language is English.

The schools had struggled with enrollment, so the diocese decided to turn them into dual-language schools, Cleary said. 

Their goal is to reach 800 students. “I think it is absolutely going to happen,” Serpe said.

Both Boston College and Notre Dame are providing support to the schools through regular training, access to research, guidance on how to attract students, and visits to other dual-language schools. 

There are about 3,600 dual-language programs in the United States, with 80% of them Spanish-English, according to the Washington, D.C.-based American Councils for International Education. Other languages taught include Chinese, French, Japanese, Haitian-Creole and Urdu.

Long Island is home to at least 15 dual-language programs, according to education officials.

Tuition at Our Lady of Guadalupe is about $6,000 a year, which is similar to other Catholic grammar schools. But because of a total of $400,000 in financial aid offered by the nonprofit Tomorrow’s Hope Foundation, some low-income families pay as little as $250 a month, Serpe said.

The schools, which accept children of any religion, provide before- and after-school care from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Audrey Leo said signing up her daughter, Ryan, at the Deer Park school was a “no-brainer,” partly because of its cost, care program and family values.

On Long Island “you couldn’t find a school that had before- and after-care and that wasn’t $1,700 a month,” said Leo, who recently relocated with her family to West Islip from Boca Raton, Florida.

Parents are staying with Catholic grammar schools in part because both academics and religious formation are being strengthened, Cleary said.

The schools are using an online “iReady” testing and instruction program that gives students individualized lessons — and teachers immediate feedback on how the child is doing, he said.

The diocese has hired a marketing firm to help principals improve their websites and better connect with parents on social media. Traffic to school websites is up an average 10%, Cleary said.

The school system also has instituted a program in which a teacher in each grade level and in a specific subject connects with teachers at other Catholic schools to share effective lessons and approaches, he said. 

“You’re not just meeting your fellow fourth-grade teacher across the hall. You’re meeting with the fellow fourth-grade teachers in your subject area among all 31 schools,” he said. “It has really empowered our teachers.”

Enrollment at the first dual-language elementary school run by the Catholic Church on Long Island has soared by 30% as it enters its second year, while enrollment in the Catholic system in general is relatively steady, church officials said.

At the Our Lady of Guadalupe school, which has campuses in Central Islip and Deer Park, enrollment jumped from 385 to 501 between September 2021, when they first opened, and September 2022, said Valerie Serpe, who is head of the schools.

Parents are drawn by the promise of their children becoming fully bilingual in English and Spanish by eighth grade, a free before- and after-school care program, affordable tuition, and the overall strengthening of academics and faith life in Catholic elementary schools on Long Island, said Brother Thomas Cleary, who is overseeing a revitalization of the entire system.

“It’s been a great blessing,” said Serpe, who spent the summer hiring staff to handle the influx of students. The total number of dual-language classes on the two campuses jumped from two to nine.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Enrollment at the first dual-language elementary school run by the Catholic Church on Long Island has soared by 30% as it enters its second year.
  • At the Our Lady of Guadalupe school, enrollment jumped from 385 to 501 between September 2021, when they first opened, and September 2022.
  • The enrollment increase was the most dramatic jump in a system that, after years of sharp declines, is doing relatively well.

The enrollment increase was the most dramatic jump in a system that, after years of sharp declines, is doing relatively well, given the pandemic, soaring inflation and other economic woes, said Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

Enrollment went up between the 2020-21 and the 2021-22 academic years, rising from 11,626 to 11,644, Dolan said. There was a slight decrease this academic year, to 11,350, but he said that is not bad considering numerous adverse factors.

“In 2022-23, despite the return of some students to public school post-pandemic and families moving out of New York State, and the dramatic increase in inflation, we only saw a slight reduction" in enrollment, Dolan said.

"The decrease is significantly less than over the last 10 years despite a difficult current economic environment and the impact of expanding Universal Pre-K programs in many districts," he said in a statement. 

31 schools in diocese

No Catholic grammar schools have closed since 2021, Dolan said. Between 2020 and 2021, the diocese had to close five, leaving it with 31. In the 1960s, there were 92.

Cleary, who is also president of Chaminade High School in Mineola, said the schools "weathered the storms of COVID and are now taking all the hard work we’ve done and really pressing the gas full speed.”

Pre-K students enrolled in the dual-language program at Our Lady...

Pre-K students enrolled in the dual-language program at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Deer Park, listen as teacher Keanan Page speaks in Spanish to give a lesson on numbers, colors, days of the week and letters of the alphabet on Oct. 21. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Three years ago, his religious order, the Marianist Brothers, launched an effort to revitalize Catholic elementary schools on Long Island. Besides Chaminade, the Marianists run other respected schools, including Kellenberg Memorial High School and St. Martin de Porres Marianist School, both in Uniondale.

“Our charism, our ministry is education, and sharing best practices with the principals of the grade schools,” Cleary said. “We’ve been running schools for decades.”

Serpe said the Marianist name had attracted many families to her school and others in the system.

At the dual-language campuses, students in nursery, pre-K and first grade spend half the day studying in English and the other half in Spanish. The program will move up a grade each year until the entire school is dual language.

Students should be completely fluent in both languages when they graduate from eighth grade, Serpe said. 

The schools have a mix of children with parents whose first language is Spanish, and others with parents whose first language is English.

Goal is 800 students

The schools had struggled with enrollment, so the diocese decided to turn them into dual-language schools, Cleary said. 

Their goal is to reach 800 students. “I think it is absolutely going to happen,” Serpe said.

Both Boston College and Notre Dame are providing support to the schools through regular training, access to research, guidance on how to attract students, and visits to other dual-language schools. 

There are about 3,600 dual-language programs in the United States, with 80% of them Spanish-English, according to the Washington, D.C.-based American Councils for International Education. Other languages taught include Chinese, French, Japanese, Haitian-Creole and Urdu.

Long Island is home to at least 15 dual-language programs, according to education officials.

Tuition at Our Lady of Guadalupe is about $6,000 a year, which is similar to other Catholic grammar schools. But because of a total of $400,000 in financial aid offered by the nonprofit Tomorrow’s Hope Foundation, some low-income families pay as little as $250 a month, Serpe said.

The schools, which accept children of any religion, provide before- and after-school care from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Audrey Leo said signing up her daughter, Ryan, at the Deer Park school was a “no-brainer,” partly because of its cost, care program and family values.

Academics and religion

On Long Island “you couldn’t find a school that had before- and after-care and that wasn’t $1,700 a month,” said Leo, who recently relocated with her family to West Islip from Boca Raton, Florida.

Parents are staying with Catholic grammar schools in part because both academics and religious formation are being strengthened, Cleary said.

The schools are using an online “iReady” testing and instruction program that gives students individualized lessons — and teachers immediate feedback on how the child is doing, he said.

The diocese has hired a marketing firm to help principals improve their websites and better connect with parents on social media. Traffic to school websites is up an average 10%, Cleary said.

The school system also has instituted a program in which a teacher in each grade level and in a specific subject connects with teachers at other Catholic schools to share effective lessons and approaches, he said. 

“You’re not just meeting your fellow fourth-grade teacher across the hall. You’re meeting with the fellow fourth-grade teachers in your subject area among all 31 schools,” he said. “It has really empowered our teachers.”

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