Inside Track and Education

Inside Track: Energy and drive propel San Juan Diego principal forward

Manuel Brenes rides herd on Latino students to help them reach their full potential.

October 25, 2013
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Manuel Brenes San Juan Diego Academy
Manuel Brenes believes that supportive schools and families are essential to alter the grim statistics of Latino students dropping out of high school. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Manuel Brenes remembers the rope burns on his father’s hands, the result of roping cattle while on a cattle drive. While his father derived deep pleasure from owning and selling cattle, he wanted a decidedly different future for his son, one that involved cracking the books.

“‘I take pride in what I do,’” Brenes recalled his father telling him. “‘But I want you to get an education.’”

Brenes didn’t disappoint. Education has framed the Guatemala native’s life, not only as a way to make a living but also to help students find their purpose in life.

So it seems fitting in the latter years of Brenes’ educational career that he became principal of San Juan Diego Academy,1650 Godfrey Ave. SW, in Wyoming, followingthe retirement of Rosa Fraga who nurtured the development of San Juan Diego Academy for the past six years.

“I’m not afraid of challenge,” said Brenes. “(It) is an opportunity to establish a legacy — my legacy — and see the school move to a higher level of excellence.”

San Juan Diego Academy is the Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids’ only K-8 school for Latino immigrant children.


San Juan Diego Academy
Position: Principal
Age: 64
Birthplace: Chiquimula, Guatemala
Residence: Kalamazoo
Family: Wife, Connie; son, Michael; daughters Melissa, Melanie and Michelle
Community Involvement: President of the International Links of Friendship; member of Knights of Columbus - Father Nouvel, Council No. 4232, in Saginaw; past president of UAW Education Administrators’ Union; former member of Hispanic American Council of Kalamazoo and Western Michigan University Lifelong Learning Academy.
Biggest Career Break: Following his father’s advice to get an education.


The school averages 160 students and is an inter-parochial partnership serving a six-parish neighborhood that includes St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Holy Name of Jesus, Our Lady of Sorrows, St. Joseph the Worker, St. Mary and Shrine of St. Francis Xavier and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Annual tuition costs are $4,800. With a sliding scale, parents pay an average of $1,200 with the remainder covered through partner parish cash gifts and private donations.

Among the characteristics listed in the principal’s job description is the ability to stir passion for the school’s mission among diverse people. Brenes said he’s up to the task.

“I lead with my example,” he said. “I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves. That requires me to arrive early and spread myself in different ways and lead with my enthusiasm.”

Enthusiasm evidently frames Brenes’ life, whether it’s for his Catholic faith, his family, or his mission as an educator to guide Latino students to a better, more fulfilling way of life that includes marshaling them to become a trained, competent work force.

The latter goal includes meeting head-on some sobering realities Latino children face, said Brenes. According to the State Report Card of Michigan Schools, only 55 percent of Latino students completed high school in Michigan last year. Such statistics break Brenes’ heart.

“When I see the statistics that say Latinos are not doing well academically, I’m not proud of that,” said Brenes. “Can we change that trend?”

He firmly believes the answer is “yes.”

With focused intent, Brenes titled his dissertation “Latino Students Can Succeed in School: A Success Case Method Study” for the Ph.D. he earned at Western Michigan University in 2012.

“It’s about trying to find what we call ‘protecting factors,’” he said. “What are some of the factors that help Latino students to have success in the schools and finish, and also what are the risk factors that distract the students, and why are they unable to finish and drop out of the schools?”

Through his research, Brenes discovered family, school and friends can be a double-edged sword. Some encourage Latino students to succeed, while others hamper their ability to do well.

“Families may say, ‘We might not have a lot, but we value education and we’re going to provide moral support and encouragement to ensure our sons or daughters stay in school,’” said Brenes.

“They establish some rules, requiring the kids to study, do their homework, attend their conferences. Schools that have programs to provide a student with language support if they don’t speak English, or teachers or a program to help the students to guide them through the school and then friends and relatives encourage them to do well because of Latino pride is critical.”

When he was growing up, Brenes considered becoming a pilot, but with no money or school to attend, it became a pipedream. But then an opportunity arose when he attended Catholic Christian Brothers High School in Chiquimula, Guatemala. After high school, he attended Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn., on a scholarship, and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree at Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D.

His first job after college was teaching, coaching and serving as athletic director and supervisor of a dormitory at a boarding school in Chiquimula from 1974-1976.

He then went to El Estor, an impoverished town in Guatemala, to help Benedictine nuns establish Sister Miriam Simon Middle School, where he worked as a principal from 1977-1979.

Then, Brenes visited a friend who was working on an Indian reservation in Stephan, S.D., and ended up getting a teaching job at the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, where he worked from 1979-1982.

Next, he relocated to New Orleans to teach at De La Salle High School from 1982-1985 and also started working on his master’s degree. He later became an assistant principal at Nouvel Catholic Central High School in Saginaw where he worked from 1985-1990, finishing his master’s at Saginaw Valley State University, before hiring on with the Kalamazoo Public Schools as a bilingual teacher at Kalamazoo Central High School and Hillside Junior High School. From 1997-2012, he was director of the bilingual and English as a second language education and world languages program for Kalamazoo Public Schools.

Brenes said it’s important his students at San Juan Diego Academy embrace their heritage because it serves as a pathway to their future. He has no use for a woe-is-me attitude.

“I’m going to talk about Latino pride,” he said. “But what kind of pride? I mean the kind of pride that leads to achieving academic success and good manners. There are so many opportunities in this country. Why not take advantage of it instead of the flashy stuff, the music, the clothes?”

Students need to learn the importance of math, science and English, he added.

“It opens their lives to dozens of careers,” he said. “The more prepared they are, the more they can’t continue having this stigma that we are the largest minority students who drop out in the United States.”

In 1995, Brenes founded the nonprofit International Links of Friendship, which works to establish goodwill between the United States and the Central American country by donating sorely needed, used equipment such as school buses and ambulances, providing school and hospital supplies, teachers who instruct students in English, and dentists.

For Brenes, it was never a question of whether he should undertake such philanthropic endeavors, but when. He is famous for recruiting volunteers to join him on a trip that averages 3,600 miles one-way.

“We should never forget where we come from,” said Brenes. “If we can help other people who are not as lucky as we are, we have a moral obligation to help (them). I don’t have the money, but I have the energy and the ability to convince other people (to volunteer).

“There’s a big gap in Guatemala between those who have and those who don’t have,” he continued. “There’s not a lot of middle class and that brews social issues, social problems.”

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