The principal of St. Matthew School has been to Boston College many times to participate in a national dual-language immersion initiative. This time, she’ll return with an honorary degree for such efforts.

Boston College is home to the TWIN-CS program — the Two-Way Immersion Network for Catholic Schools — within the Roche Center for Catholic Education and St. Matthew has been one of 12 schools in it from the start. The college will bestow Gena McGowan, St. principal at St. Matthew, with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters during its commencement May 23.

Gena McGowan (courtesy photo)
Gena McGowan (courtesy photo)

McGowan will be honored for her trailblazing work transforming the traditional K-8 Catholic school into a thriving community, effectively serving culturally and linguistically diverse students through whole-school, dual-language immersion in English and Spanish. Her understanding through experience confirmed Roche Center research: school environments need to be welcoming and culturally accessible to all students.

“When you affirm the language and culture of all children, families and their children feel welcomed and the students feel encouraged to learn. Further, schools witness improved student performance and higher enrollments,” said Kristin Melley, director of professional development for the Roche Center.

Enrollment at St. Matthew sat at 89 students when McGowan became principal. Academic performance was low. The school, which served a predominantly Latino population, had the well-intentioned purpose of teaching its students how to speak English by discouraging the use of Spanish. A year into her administration, McGowan pursued a different model of student learning via a two-way immersion program.

Two years later, at the launch of the TWIN-CS initiative, McGowan’s school was selected as 1 of 12 schools to join TWIN-CS. With her team of teachers and active participation in the TWIN-CS network, McGowan continues to expand her dual-language immersion program across all grade levels, where proficiency in both English and Spanish in all subjects is the guiding principle.

Today, the school enrolls more than 200 students and has experienced a yearly improvement of approximately 15% in test scores and enrollment since beginning dual-language immersion in 2009. All students are now taught to read, write, and speak in English and Spanish, providing an innovative structure for developing students’ academic content.



Study: Catholic schools in an increasingly Hispanic Church (full report)

Informe muestra que escuelas católicas de EE.UU. no hacen suficiente por católicos latinos (with link to English version)


The Roche Center’s TWIN-CS initiative provides program design support for two-way immersion, professional development, local expertise, and a network of Catholic school educators who share practical strategies, innovative practices, and a commitment to Catholic identity. TWIN-CS consists of 97% of all U.S. Catholic bilingual schools.

The signs that the dual-language model is working are abundant. “Incoming children who speak only Spanish now arrive at St. Matthew to find classmates who are ambassadors of welcome and encouragement,” said McGowan. “Established students know that they can use language to bridge this student into the classroom. These kids are no longer alienated. They are a loving ‘mission’ for the other students, who have become proud of the two languages they are learning to speak.”

McGowan has also led St. Matthew through two successful re-accreditation processes and re-structured the way the school uses assessment data. Every student now benefits from the use of an iPad for instruction. These changes have also helped to boost student achievement in math and reading.

McGowan is an alumna of the University of San Francisco and holds master’s degrees in education and counseling from University of Portland and University of Phoenix, respectively.  Of Venezuelan and French heritage, she has been an educator for more than 27 years.

McGowan will be among five recipients of honorary degrees from Boston College.


Other notable honorary degrees

  • Jesuit Father Charles Allen — He received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree during Bridgeport’s St. Vincent’s College commencement ceremony May 20.
    Fr. Allen has been an active member of the St. Vincent’s community as a celebrant for the baccalaureate mass and as a spiritual director for alumni day of recollections. Additionally, he has served on the Institutional Review Board of St. Vincent’s Medical Center. Currently, Fr. Allen is the Special Assistant to the President of Fairfield University and is University Chaplain, in addition to being the Catholic chaplain to the town of Fairfield Emergency Services.
  • Fr. Emmanuel Mwerekande — This Ugandan pastor will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Boston College May 23. He has led a parish of more than 50,000 members, 41 sub-churches and 20 schools since 2011 and had led efforts to bring clean water to the community and irrigation for sustainable agriculture.
  • Jesuit Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator — He will receive an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Fairfield University May 22. Fr. Orobator is the current principal of the Jesuit School of Theology and Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations in Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Sr. Maureen Flemming — She will receive an unspecified honorary degree from Fairfield University May 22. Sr. Maureen is the coordinator of Pastoral Outreach Activities at St. Luke Parish in Westport, Connecticut and formerly director of Caroline House, a literacy center for immigrant women in Bridgeport.