"We had to seek creative ways to bridge the gap," Browning said. "I don't know of any other Catholic school that's doing this, but I think something like the St. Anne Support Council can be a model for other schools."
Browning arrived that year to a school with only 51 students. Ironically, he had been a parishioner at St. Anne's Church and Shrine for years but never knew how bad the situation was.
"I remember walking down the corridor thinking, 'This is the poorest school I've ever been in,' and I had worked in South-Central," he said.
Despite its problems, St. Anne has stuck to its tradition of affordable tuition, which was $2,650 last year compared with an average of $4,330 at nine other local Catholic schools. About 30 St. Anne students receive scholarships from the archdiocese's Catholic Education Foundation, which provides grants to more than 7,000 parochial students each year.
"In their defense, I think the archdiocese came up with the best way to help the most number of schools by basing funding on census data," Browning said. "Unfortunately, St. Anne loses under that formula."
Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said local parishes decide how high to set tuition and that the schools have been effective in meeting students' educational needs despite having far fewer resources than the public school system.
"Where subsidies are inadequate or unavailable, parishes and schools have done what they've always done well -- innovate," Tamberg said. "St. Anne's school is an example of Catholic education's innovative spirit."
For Alice Cuellar and her family, St. Anne has been a focal point for more than 64 years, attended by herself, 11 siblings and succeeding generations. Her father became a handyman at the school and church after retiring, and Cuellar now works at the school as a first-grade teachers aide.
The family lived a block away, and Cuellar, 49, remembers being able to see the Ferris wheel at the church's annual carnival from her home. Even during the worst times, the family never considered leaving.
"Before Mr. Browning and Father Mike, it was not a stable time but we never left because you don't leave your home," she said.
The plight of schools such as St. Anne has prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to call for more aggressive support and advocacy of parochial schools.
In August, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange announced a $5-million, two-year initiative to assist needy families, forgive school debt and boost enrollment.
In Santa Ana, one recipient, the School of Our Lady, will receive the equivalent of about $400,000 in debt forgiveness and tuition assistance to help boost enrollment above 270 students. It was created two years ago from the merger of two schools that could not afford to remain open.
Meanwhile at St. Anne, Kendra King, a founding member of the support council from Santa Monica's PS #1 private school, was so impressed after a visit last year that she enrolled her eldest daughter during the middle of a school year.
"I saw kids fully engaged and teachers completely committed," King said. "You couldn't tell the kids were lacking anything in the classroom. The history of the place sold itself, but I don't think people in the area are aware of what's going on here and what a gem this is."