Miracle of St. Anthony: Long Beach icon rebounds
CANALIS REPORT: Once almost given up for dead, the school has found a new life despite the recession.
By John Canalis, The Canalis Report, Courtesy of Long Beach Press Telegram
Frannie Roberts attended Fremont Elementary and Rogers Middle School, two relatively small public campuses with high test scores.
But the size of the high schools she considered for freshman year gave her pause.
"I thought I could get lost at Wilson or Poly," the Belmont Heights resident recalls.
Instead Roberts selected St. Anthony High School, where she made the softball team, started a tennis club and became a campus ambassador.
"The school's really welcoming," says the 15-year-old honor student, now a sophomore. "We're like family."
The family is growing.
Despite the recession, freshman enrollment increased 75 percent to 105 students this year. The overall student body grew 30 percent to 315 in the same time period.
Though dwarfed by public schools, the numbers are meaningful at St. Anthony, where enrollment dwindled to 185 in 2001, sparking fears that Long Beach's only co-ed Catholic high school could close.
But a new administration, an aggressive advisory board and loyal alumni reversed the decline, and by 2004 the school had stabilized. Nevertheless, the year-over-year growth seen between 2008 and 2009 surprised many - especially in a recession where parents can lean on free public schools to make ends meet.
"There is a tradition there that has been reasserted," says U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, a 1964 graduate who served as state attorney general and now represents a Northern California district in Congress.
In interviews, administrators, teachers, parents, students and graduates attributed the increase in freshman enrollment to strengthened academics, aggressive marketing in Catholic elementary schools and churches, a multimillion dollar modernization effort and significant community outreach.
They also pointed to renewed interest among parents and students in a traditional Catholic education, high college-placement rates, a desire for small classes, state cuts to public schools and higher tuition at some Catholic high schools in the region.
President draws praise
Much of the praise was reserved for the school's president, a marketing expert and veteran of corporate turnarounds who was hired in 2001 to revive her alma mater.
"The president, Gina Rushing Maguire, is very bright, outgoing and a positive influence on the school," says Bill Mais, a money manager who graduated from St. Anthony in 1949. "Mike Schabert, the principal, is really dedicated to improving the school. He's a no-nonsense, hands-on guy who is working very, very hard, as all people do, but he seems to have an exceptional desire to really put St. Anthony's back in the mainstream."
Former Long Beach City Councilman Frank Colonna, who worked with Press-Telegram columnist Tom Hennessy on a successful campaign to bring back the St. Anthony marching band with donated instruments, credited his alma mater's high expectations, personal attention, strong faculty and intimate setting at 620 Olive Ave.
"Many people are looking toward the security of their youngsters getting an education through a private school with a bit of a religious bent," Colonna says. "People just feel, in general, that there is a discipline in the school, the responsibility that is imparted to the students, a certain type of camaraderie that is ingrained in the students and teachers who care a lot."
When he joined St. Anthony in 2008, Principal Schabert recruited heavily in Catholic primary schools and churches. He touted a college-preparatory curriculum that meets University of California requirements, a 13 to 1 teacher ratio and opportunities to play sports.
"From the moment you apply, you are important to us," he says.
Though many students come from Protestant, Buddhist and other religious backgrounds, the majority are Catholic.
"We appreciate the fact that it's a Catholic high school," says Maureen Neeley, Roberts's mom, who felt Poly and Wilson were good choices as well and let her daughter decide which school to attend. "It is very social justice-oriented. Kids are asked to get involved in the community."
Though St. Anthony has an entirely lay faculty and staff of 29 and is no longer a parish school with priests and nuns at the head of the class, religion courses in the the Bible, Catholic teachings, character, ethics and morality are required. Students attend Mass and prayer services and do volunteer work.
"I enjoy the fact that we have religion classes," says R.J. Delacruz, 17, of Long Beach. "It's actually very important for me to hear more about God ... We get to talk to teachers about our faith."
Sophomore Rachel Jondle, 15, was home-schooled in Georgia. Before her family moved to Long Beach, her dad scouted schools, choosing St. Anthony in part for the faith-based curriculum.
Sports is low key
Schabert acknowledges the school is not for everyone, particularly students who want to play sports at the highest level, something athletic powerhouses like Poly, Lakewood and Los Alamitos can offer.
But students who would warm a Moore League bench, or maybe not even make the teams, get playing time at St. Anthony.
"I wanted to play basketball," says Delacruz, who was admitted to the Quest honors program at Millikan High School before coming to St. Anthony. "I didn't think I'd be able to play. I made the team (here)."
There are also other opportunities, such as taking marine science classes at the Aquarium of the Pacific and speaking parts in school plays.
Though sports and activities are important, academics appear to be the main draw for students who come from as far away as Los Angeles and Orange County.
"I've got a better chance of going to college," says Jazmyne Alexander, 16, a junior who chose St. Anthony over her home school in L.A. "Public schools, they don't pay attention to you as much as they should."
St. Anthony sends 99 percent of graduates to college - about 60 percent of them to four-year campuses. Another point of pride: The Saints won the Academic Decathlon in their small-schools division in early 2009.
Students take the PSAT, the precursor to the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, and meet with college counselors - in ninth grade.
"It's college preparatory, and I've felt that since freshman year," says Alex Lao, a 17-year-old senior.
"At St. Anthony they want you to do more than graduate," adds freshman Michael Smart, 14. "They want you to go to college, to beyond college, to become a doctor or a lawyer."
St. Anthony did something unusual among Southern California schools this fall - hired five new teachers. State cutbacks forced hiring freezes and layoffs in many public school districts. Some private schools struggled as well with parents who could no longer afford them.
"I am honored to be a part of a place that is growing and getting better," says Bryan Cardella, a new hire who teaches biology and drama.
St. Anthony reminds another new recruit, English teacher Kathleen O'Brien, of the Catholic schools she grew up attending in Alexandria, Va.: small, academically rigorous, community-oriented.
Though faculty do not earn as much as Long Beach Unified teachers, stipends for extracurricular activities and sports can get the salaries close to parity, Schabert says.
Full tuition is $8,000 for Catholics and $9,100 for non-Catholics, but few pay the full amounts.
Fees are greatly reduced, to $5,800 for Catholics and $6,100 for non-Catholics, if families dedicate 25 hours a year to service.
Alumni gifts crucial
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which oversees the school, provides some help, but the bulk of the funding comes from tuition and alumni giving.
Financial aid is offered, and the school tries not to turn away anyone who is qualified, but still asks students to give what they can.
"No student is here for free," Maguire says. "Everybody pays something."
On the nearly 90-year-old campus, where students gather around a statue of the Virgin Mary, diversity is apparent. The student body is about 45 percent Hispanic, 30 percent Caucasian, 15 percent African-American, and 10 percent Asian or Pacific Islander.
"I've got friends in Compton, I've got friends in Bixby Knolls," says Lauren Funaro, a 16-year-old junior.
One of the key draws at St. Anthony is the alumni network that operates much like one would associate with a college, not a high school. Elected officials past and present and multiple business leaders remain involved in the school.
This was apparent to students like Lao, who enrolled at St. Anthony at the urging of an uncle who is an alumnus.
"The network is out there, and that's a great deal of it," says Doris Topsy-Elvord, a former harbor commissioner and Long Beach councilwoman who graduated in 1949. "We are very proud of St. Anthony, we all are. I tell people, `If you have to give up a pair of shoes to send your child, give 'em up, and put him in St. Anthony's, and let him wear sneakers."'
Bob Parkin, a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge and a former Long Beach city prosecutor and city attorney, graduated with Mais and Topsy-Elvord. They and other surviving classmates celebrated their 60th reunion together on Oct. 2.
"I went there, and I remain friends with all the people that were in my class," Parkin says. "A lot of people have stayed in Long Beach. With the school, there's a sentimental attachment to it. We don't want to see it go away. I thought I got an excellent education going there."
Things were stricter for the class of '49. Boys and girls were separated. St. Anthony was founded in 1920 by Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns, who were later joined by the Brothers of the Holy Cross. (The sisters, who no longer wanted to wear habits in the classroom, left the school in protest in the late 1960s.)
"We had the brothers, and they made you toe the line," Parkin recalls. "Some people may not appreciate the discipline they had down there, but it goes along way in keeping your head in the books. They were good teachers, but you didn't fool around in class, and if you did, you paid for it."
$6M in upgrades
Parkin says he is impressed with the school's physical improvements, such as the new computer room, a remodelled science lab and restored buildings, which have received some $6 million in upgrades.
An issue for some parents who have considered the school has long been the location on the western edge of downtown. The working class area of historic homes and large apartment buildings struggled into the 1990s, but the architecturally significant housing stock, as well as new loft and apartment construction, has led to new investment in the area.
Maguire is glad St. Anthony resisted calls to move the school to the more affluent Eastside, as Catholic schools are charged with serving those at every economic station.
"We see this as a good neighborhood," says parent Neeley, who works as a city librarian and runs a home-research business, HouStories. "There's poverty, yes, but that doesn't make it a bad neighborhood. I like the idea of an urban school, a school they can take the bus to. It's a good, maturing experience."
Former Long Beach Harbor Commissioner George Murchison, a 1954 graduate, says the area is much-improved, calling the sprawling Museum of Latin American Art on nearby Alamitos Avenue a "godsend."
"It's older," Colonna says. "It's got character, and of course it has the church across the street. That makes the school a monument, in a sense."
Though there is great diversity, Catholic mores, such as respecting those of different backgrounds, persist in the campus culture. There hasn't been a fight in years, though some students have been expelled.
"There's not really cliques here," says Nick Gerard, a 16-year-old junior. "We're all together."
That was true last century. Topsy-Elvord recalls being the only African-American student in the late 1940s.
"I never knew I was black until I got to UCLA," she recalls. "The issue never came up. I never heard a derogatory word at all."
A tie to the Vatican
News of St. Anthony's growth has traveled to the Vatican, where William Levada, a St. Anthony graduate, was elevated to cardinal under Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.
"I'm delighted to learn about the upturn in enrollment at St. Anthony's High School these past few years," Levada says by e-mail. "The school has served the Long Beach community well for the better part of a century. The increased enrollment can only mean increased programs and opportunities for today's students. God bless St. Anthony's!"
The school named for the patron saint of lost things no longer has problems finding students. Growth is planned. Maguire believes 550 students is the ideal enrollment, not the 1,700 high point in the 1960s.
Maguire wants to ensure financial stability without sacrificing the small class sizes that are such a draw.
She also makes plain that she doesn't want to see another St. Anthony comeback story.
"In our minds, we're already back," she says.