It would be hard to find two Roman Catholic elementary schools that form a more striking contrast than American Martyrs, in the affluent suburb of Manhattan Beach, and Our Lady Help of Christians, in an industrial area northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
American Martyrs, spread comfortably over a 10-acre site, is a "parish school" in every sense--the families of all but two of its students live nearby and belong to the church that overlooks its campus. It has an all-white student body, and from Principal Wendy McLaughlin down, a faculty that no longer includes any priests, brothers or sisters.
About half of Our Lady Help of Christians' students come from other parts of Los Angeles, brought to the Lincoln Heights school on public buses or by parents who work downtown and belong to other parishes closer to home. Jammed into a tiny plot of land beside the Golden State Freeway, its students are minorities--85% Latino and 15% Asian-American, many of them children of immigrants. Its energetic principal is a nun--Sister Maria Esthela Gonzalez, born in Mexico--as are two of the school's nine teachers.
American Martyrs' families pay the $1,800-per-child annual tuition without the help of scholarships. Strong fund-raising activities by parents and other parish members enable the suburban school to share its resources with an inner-city campus and still spend twice as much per student as Our Lady Help of Christians can.
At the Eastside school, tuition starts at $950 and drops with each additional child in a family; there is no charge after the fourth child. Nonetheless, 26 families needed full or partial scholarships this year, provided by the Los Angeles archdiocese's Education Foundation.
Despite these differences, the two schools have more in common than not. Each manifests the strict standards, high level of parent involvement (a requirement at most Catholic schools), sense of community and emphasis on the teaching of values and academic basics that some education experts believe are keys to Catholic schools' success.
They also enjoy much greater independence than is afforded most public schools.
"The archdiocese is a great resource," said American Martyrs' McLaughlin, "but each school has a lot of autonomy, and that is one of our great strengths."
It is that autonomy that has led Supt. Jerome R. Porath to describe the 287 schools within the archdiocese as "a system of schools, not a school system."
The archdiocese, which includes about 101,000 students in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, sets basic curriculum requirements (although schools can and do add to them), screens textbooks and issues teachers' salary guidelines. It also helps screen job applicants, provides staff training workshops, arranges for scholarships and helps needy schools with their budgets. The schools are required to be accredited by the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, an independent oversight group, and their teachers must hold credentials or at least be working on them.
Nonetheless, Sister Esthela, as Our Lady Help of Christians' longtime principal is known, feels that she has plenty of room to tailor her school to her students' needs. Take the matter of bilingual education:
"Our parents have rejected the idea of bilingual education. They want their children to be taught in English," said Sister Esthela, making it clear she shares that view. All textbooks are in English, and the school does not accept children past kindergarten who are not fluent in English.
"When the parents drop the children off in the morning, they are talking in Spanish, but as soon as they (come onto campus), they switch into their English 'channel,' " she said.
Although many of the school's families have little money, the students are used to helping others less fortunate. Collections are taken daily for needy families. Last year, the school contributed more to the missions program than any in the archdiocese--$6,600, mainly in pennies, nickels and dimes.
Students come from nearby neighborhoods--Lincoln Heights, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles--or commute from San Gabriel, Downey, North Hollywood and even Ontario. Only about half belong to the parish church adjacent to the school, so staff members work hard to create a "family" feeling.
There are holiday feasts, "brother-sister" programs pairing students from different grades and communities, school festivals and other family events that are part fund-raiser and part spirit-booster. But Sister Esthela said it is the parents who make the school special.
"Every day there are parents on campus. We find something for everybody to do, and that is what keeps us going," she said, ticking off a list that included selling food at lunchtime, tutoring students, making repairs, sorting textbooks and working on a series of activities that puts an average $23,000 a year into school coffers. The school also receives a subsidy from the archdiocese.
It was the parents association that clinched the deal for a new computer-based reading laboratory, Sister Esthela said. The computer lab was a gift of the Riordan Foundation, but it was contingent upon the school providing space. So parents spent many days on campus, refurbishing a used portable classroom bought to house the lab. They built shelves and tables and refinished chairs from the recently closed Pater Noster High School in Glendale.
"I know we are materially and economically poor here, but our kids feel like a million dollars," said Sister Esthela. "They are rich in love and caring people--in the things that count."
American Martyrs' McLaughlin said caring, dedicated staff and parents are what make her school special as well. She estimated that parents--who are required to help in some way--contribute 190 hours a week to staff the health room, work in the library, coach athletics, assist with art projects, help in classrooms and labs, monitor playground activities and provide weekly hot lunches. That is in addition to major fund-raising events, which brought in about $70,000 last year.
The participation of parents "presents to youngsters an environment that is important," McLaughlin said. "It also provides those Catholic values we are trying so hard to instill," including charity, service to others and a feeling of community.
The school's roomy campus has allowed extra space for two computer labs, a tutoring room, health room, library, math center, science lab and an after-school child-care program, a response to the school's increasing number of two-career families.
Community service is important at American Martyrs. Through the parish, the school contributes toys, food and other goods at holidays and other times to its inner-city "sister" parish, St. Lawrence of Brindisi. And at least one of each grade level's two annual field trips is based on doing something to help the community. On a clear December morning, first- and third-graders trooped the few blocks to the beach and got a lesson in seashore ecology before spending the rest of the day cleaning up trash.
Although all staff members are lay people, McLaughlin said most are parish members and committed to teaching Catholic values.
"This is a Catholic school first of all," McLaughlin said. "It is our way of bringing the faith down to the children."
A Tale of Two Schools
AMERICAN MARTYRS, Manhattan Beach
Enrollment: 304 students in K-8.
Ethnicity: 100% Anglo.
Staff: All lay people, including principal, nine classroom teachers, one Spanish teacher, one math-science teacher for upper grades, one music teacher, two computer lab aides, one math center teacher, one religion coordinator, one part-time physical education teacher, four teachers' aides in lower grades, one librarian.
Avg. class size: 36.
Source of students: All but two are parish members.
Annual tuition: $1,800 per child (higher for non-Catholic students).
Financial aid: None.
Spending per child: $2,303.
Annual budget: $700,000 (85% from tuition, 10% from parent association fundraisers and 5% from the American Martyrs parish).
Extras: Two computer labs, library, Spanish classes, added music classes in grades 1-5; parent-staffed art program; low-cost after-school child-care program; two field trips a year (including one for community service), health room, science lab, math center, tutoring room; athletic field.
OUR LADY HELP OF CHRISTIANS, Lincoln Heights
Enrollment: 311 students in K-8.
Ethnicity: 85% Latino, 15% Asian.
Staff: One administrator (a nun), nine full-time teachers, including two nuns, two part-time teaching assistants, one federally funded remedial teacher employed by Los Angeles Unified School District.
Avg. class size: 35.
Source of students: About half come from other neighborhoods or parishes.
Annual tuition: $950 per child (per-student amount decreases with each additional child in a family; fifth child attends free)
Financial aid: 26 families receive full or partial aid.
Spending per child: $986, not counting federal funding for a remedial program for some children.
Annual budget: $306,650 (including about 81% from tuition, 12% from Archdiocese of Los Angeles and about 7% from parent association fundraisers).
Extras: Computer lab, three to four field trips per year, federally funded program ($62,000 this year) for 186 low-income underachievers.