Our Lady of Black Rock School in Buffalo has steadily experienced an increase in enrollment over the past several years. According to Principal Martha Eadie, the school has welcomed a number of students from other countries, which has offered the community a uniquely multicultural experience.
Many of the students who have recently begun to attend the school have come from Thailand. Children at Our Lady of Black Rock have emigrated from other countries in Africa and Asia, including Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Egypt, China, Zambia and Eritrea, frequently as political refugees.
The school's enrollment for 2014-15 has increased by 25 percent over the previous year, and it has had an upward increase in enrollment trends over the past five years. "This is more significant than in the past. Since 2009-10, we've been increasing steadily 10 percent," said Eadie. The school has 175 students in pre-K through eighth grade, and class sizes will increase from an average of 15 to 25 children.
"All class levels have increased, but we have not needed to add additional staffing. We're just filling our classrooms more than in the past," she said. "That's reasonable; we don't want to go above that, but we're okay." She added that 28 families with children in the school have come to the U.S. to flee from their war-torn homelands, and they have sought a better life for themselves and their children.
"They come to us as a means to meet their children's needs, and meet their needs as well. It goes above and beyond just educating the children; it's helping the families," Eadie added. "There are resettlement groups, such as Jericho Road and a lot of other places, which indeed are there to help our families. But once they're settled in an apartment and they have their basic needs, they get public assistance, they get a job or whatever, they're left to their own devices a little bit."
The school aims to help bridge the gap between newcomers settling in a new neighborhood and feeling like they are a part of that neighborhood, by providing other family services, which Eadie said also helps to make the school attractive to those who need extra help. They help the students with family services, such as translators for parents who come for parent-teacher conferences or workshops, health and wellness focuses for families and cultural immersion activities for students and families.
"It's something for everybody, not just for the kids, I think, being a small community and making people feel comfortable and inviting them to be part of our community," Eadie said. "Those who speak little English, or none, they're more reluctant, but we say, 'Please come and join us,' realizing they have a lot of challenges. Working with the translator helps our families realize that a lot of the issues and situations they're dealing with are not just a cultural thing, it's being a parent of an American child."
Eadie said getting translators to help the immigrant families is not difficult, because they will usually go into the local communities of native speakers and have a student, parent or someone who is willing to do this in order to help make life easier for families who are not yet comfortable with English. Using someone they know already, rather than a stranger being brought in from the outside, also helps.
The translators typically help out at both the parent-teacher conferences and in the classroom, and some of the students will help if parents come in or if the school is doing tours. An adult will often sit in at a parent-teacher conference, and families are generally receptive to having this option. Additionally, Eadie said the fact that the cultural diversity, as well as the various socioeconomic situations of families, allow people of differing backgrounds to share a common human experience and learn from each other.
"I say this all the time, that we're colorblind here. That's important because we still are one community and we are all here together, in our way to provide a Catholic education for our children," added Eadie. "We are a unique school in Buffalo and in the diocese."
The school principal recalled Pope Francis and his words encouraging the Church to be "of the poor and for the poor." She said Bishop Richard J. Malone has assisted by promoting the New Evangelization. The work Our Lady of Black Rock has done also fulfills a mission to those entrusted to its care.
"We provide a safe refuge for many, and we are a source of hope for their future. We give something to our families that, I think, they are not getting in maybe a public school situation, because there are too many and there isn't anybody to help them get the things they need. We're small enough to reach out and be able to help them, nurturing their children, and being a community center school, to being able to serve not just our students, but our families' needs as well," Eadie said.
This year, Our Lady of Black Rock has also contributed to its increased enrollment by providing tuition assistance through the Bison Children's Scholarship Fund, which has been able to help many students whose families would not otherwise be able to afford a Catholic education. Founded in 1995, it is a privately funded assistance program to help low-income elementary school families afford to send their children to a private school in any of the eight counties of Western New York. Once the families show their financial need, they are eligible if they can pay at least $500 of the tuition themselves.