A school transformed

Times Staff Writer

With classes in Mandarin, overseas trips to China and France, bus transportation for commuters and individualized fitness instruction that includes salsa and tai chi, new students at St. Genevieve High School quickly come to realize that things are a bit different at this Panorama City campus.

A recent daylong pep rally celebrating 157 incoming freshmen that featured singing, dance routines, speeches and a pancake breakfast served by upper classmen sealed the deal.

The school has gained a reputation as one of the most innovative high schools in Los Angeles -- one that is bucking the trend of many other urban Catholic schools that have closed or are teetering on the brink due to crumbling facilities and declining enrollments.

A decade ago, St. Genevieve, too, was on the precipice before officials set about changing the nature of the school with fresh ideas that are now being replicated by other Catholic campuses. The school is well-known for its character-education curriculum instituted by Principal Daniel Horn, but it is also gaining recognition for a theater arts program that puts on two full orchestra plays each year.

And though 10 years ago only about 35% of St. Genevieve graduates went to college, last year's college enrollment was 100%, with 65% of students entering four-year universities.

The school this year had a waiting list for its freshman class and saw overall enrollment increase 13% from last year, with a current enrollment of 565 students. It is the only school in the Los Angeles Archdiocese with a bus system, picking up students from four areas in Los Angeles, including one stop near Daniel Murphy Catholic High School, an urban campus that closed at the end of May because of financial and enrollment pressures.

St. Genevieve's unorthodox methods had an immediate impression on freshman Victoria Abaunza.

"When I first came and my brother dropped me off and said 'Have a good day,' I was scared," said the 14-year-old. "It's so different than elementary school. But right away, all these new people, juniors and seniors, said 'hi' and treated me like family. Right away I felt like it was home."

Unlike some other schools, St. Genevieve's teachers and administrators are willing to take some risks, said academic counselor Allan Shatkin.

"People don't like change," said Shatkin, who has been teaching for 40 years, including the last eight at St. Genevieve. "You get people with vested interests that don't have anything to do with education. And in the public arena, people have tenure and there are political pressures. But people have to know that there are other ways of doing things that work. We are constantly experimenting."

That is seen in such initiatives as weekend and evening sessions, which occur several times per year. For night classes, students report to campus at 2 or 3 p.m. There is a dinner break and parents are invited to share in activities such as Mass or guest speakers.

The school closes for a week each year for a teachers retreat to discuss educational goals, but also to foster cooperation and trust. Last week, the entire student body was taken -- via 13 buses -- to a Los Angeles conference of governors from states that border Mexico to get a real-life civics lesson. Next month, everyone is going to see a "Sound Of Music" sing-along at the Hollywood Bowl. Part of the goal is to teach the teenagers comportment at such events.

The school is experimenting with starting classes an hour later, in line with research that has shown that teenagers don't absorb information as well during early morning hours. Classwork would be spread out over an extra 20 days at the end of the school calendar, alleviating nightly homework demands as well as student and teacher stress.

St. Genevieve is not without its challenges. Located on Roscoe Boulevard just west of Woodman Avenue in a troubled area known as the Witch's Hat, it inhabits one of the more crime-prone corners of the San Fernando Valley. But by nearly everyone's account, it is a haven from the tagging, theft, destruction of property and break-ins that are sometimes common in the neighborhood.

It has no metal detectors and police are not a daily presence.

"If there's any crime at St. Genevieve, I would be very surprised," said Tom Iaccino, a 1970 graduate who sent seven children to the school. "What Dan brought in was the idea that all of these kids are going to get a good education and go to college and that has a positive impact in this area of people respecting the school. For many of the families, their kids are the first ones to go to college and that gives them hope."

Other schools are beginning to take notice. St. Genevieve last week hosted the visiting head of a Van Nuys school who had come to check out programs. An administrator at a Catholic school in Lancaster is doing his doctoral dissertation on St. Genevieve's character-education program.

The school has found a way to present and market itself as an attractive alternative to higher-priced private schools and public charter schools, which also have the ability to innovate but lack spiritual and moral instruction that many parents seek, said Shane Martin, dean of the school of education at Loyola Marymount University. Other Catholic schools will have to follow suit to survive.

"St. Genevieve has a strong faculty, good leadership, clear vision and a success rate," said Martin. "Location is a big part of it. They provide one of the best options for parents looking for schools in that area."

Increasingly, though, families from outlying areas such as Sherman Oaks, Encino and Palmdale as well as Hollywood and South Los Angeles are enrolling students at the school, which charges an annual tuition of $6,775. The student body used to be predominantly Filipino and Latino, reflecting the surrounding neighborhood; it now includes a larger population of other Asian groups as well as whites and African Americans.

The biggest feeder school is St. Genevieve Elementary School, located next door. But that transfer has not always been automatic. Ten years ago, during its nadir, the school was noted only for its mediocrity -- and worse, the thuggish behavior of its athletes. Enrollment had declined to 359, students struggled academically, and St. Genevieve was at the top of no one's list -- including its sister elementary school.

"I was a teacher at the elementary school before the change in administration and we would encourage students to attend any other school but St. Genevieve High," said Juan Jasso, who is now the high school's director of admissions.

In 1999, Horn joined the school as principal and, responding to the Columbine school shootings that year, he instituted a character-education program.

In 2003, St. Genevieve was the first Catholic school in the nation to be named a National School of Character by the Character Education Partnership based in Washington, D.C., and soon enrollment began to grow.

Character education has its skeptics. A 2007 report released under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education found that many programs have failed to prove their effectiveness. But Horn cites the turnaround of his school as the best evidence.

"We're trying to create a model high school to provide an example for others as a place where . . . we bring out the best in students," Horn said. "Daily attendance went up, enrollment went up, the number of students on the honor role has gone up. But more important are things that are hard to put a measuring stick to, like students who look you in the eye and are confident."

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carla.rivera@latimes.com

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