Students Protest Plan to Shut School

Times Staff Writer

Boisterous students from Bishop Conaty High School taught the Archdiocese of Los Angeles a lesson or two about school spirit on Friday as they waved placards and chanted "save our school" at a press conference called to announce plans for closing the all-girl campus.

Students from the inner-city school, clad in their purple and white school colors, erupted in protest as officials said that the prohibitive cost of earthquake safety work would force the closure of Bishop Conaty, the oldest Catholic high school in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

"We love our school," said senior Marisol Gamboa. "It's a challenging place. You don't get anything for free, even if you're cute. We want other girls to experience what we've had."

The task of speaking above the cacophony fell to the Rev. Aidan Carroll, the archdiocese's superintendent of education. Carroll said that the archdiocese cannot afford to spend the $1.3 million or more needed to bring Bishop Conaty into compliance with city earthquake safety standards. He also noted that enrollment at the 65-year-old high school has steadily declined in recent decades.

The school, located at 2900 W. Pico Blvd., is scheduled to be demolished in 1989. Carroll said there is little he can offer in the way of hope to the students and faculty.

"I feel strong empathy for the students," Carroll said. "But the buildings are unsafe. And in good conscience we cannot continue to bring students into that environment."

If Friday's pep rally is any indication, however, the battle for Bishop Conaty is just beginning.

The dozens of girls who lined the street in front of the archdiocesan education building at rush hour pledged to do whatever it takes to keep the high school open.

Words such as "love" and "sisterhood" were used to describe the bond that exists between the 320 students and the faculty. "Everybody gets along like sisters here," said Connie Piperno, a senior. "And we want our school. . . . That's all that we want."

The archdiocese threatened to close another school five years ago, but later reversed the decision. Plans for demolishing Cathedral High School, which is almost as old as Bishop Conaty, were scrapped after students, parents, faculty members and alumni successfully campaigned to save the inner-city boys' school, which is known for its high academic standards.

As Sister Joann Bauer, the Bishop Conaty principal, watched the rally from the sidewalk in a purple Bishop Conaty Jaguars letter jacket, she said that her students have already started discussing similar ways to save their school. There is even talk of independently raising the $1.3 million needed for earthquake stabilization, but supporters concede that this is doubtful since most of the students come from poor families.

Bishop Conaty is made up almost entirely of minorities. Seventy percent of its students are Hispanic, 20% are black and 9% are Asian. Most of the pupils come from the poor neighborhoods that surround the campus, and more than one-fifth of the parents require financial assistance or special payment plans to meet the $1,350-a-year tuition.

Bauer said her students call themselves the "Conaty family." More than 11,000 of them have passed through its halls since the campus opened in 1923 under the name of the Catholic Girls High School, and more than 80% of its graduates go on to college.

Bauer added that the school may seek help from some of its alumni. "There has always been a strong history of dedication and community spirit here," she said. "We have many hard-working, well-educated former students . . . and many are already asking what they can do."

Floyd Hickmon has a daughter at Bishop Conaty and is treasurer of the Parents Support Group. He said that news of the closure hit the parents like a "bombshell," because most have come to rely on the school's personalized manner of dealing with their children.

"It is small and the teachers are very dedicated," Hickmon said. "The girls get personal attention and a general atmosphere of closeness. The academics are also quite good."

Orisa Clark, another parent, said she is willing to go to almost any length to "preserve this haven" for her daughter, a sophomore. "The girls do not want just any school," Clark said. "They want Bishop Conaty. And they need something to hold on to other than hopelessness."

Carroll, the superintendent, said he will listen to any suggestions for saving Bishop Conaty. But he also stressed that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles will do all it can to find spots at other schools for students who are displaced by the demolition. "No student will be denied an opportunity to a Catholic education in a Catholic high school," Carroll said.

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