“You have to impart on those third-graders that the atom is a real human train. I know if I take two or more atoms and they bond, it makes a molecule. You’ve probably heard it from me before, in a water drop there are millions of molecules. And every molecule is at least two atoms bonded together.”

The 15 students in Mrs. Cathie Garcia’s science class at St. Louis of France School, sitting around three tables, had stopped chatting and working on their awesome atom projects. They had put down their colored Play-Doh, egg cartons and Styrofoam half-balls. More than a few of the nine girls and six boys looked a little concerned, as if they finally realized what they had to do.

By the next day, Friday, they would have to come up with a real lesson plan. And then on Monday, actually teach third-graders at the La Puente parochial school about the atom, using the models they were putting the finishing touches on right now. There was no getting around it. Each member of the team had to do part of the presentation.

After the morning class, Mrs. Garcia, wearing a green apron over a blue dress, finally sat down. Until then, the 57-year-old woman had been constantly in motion, going from table to table in a classroom that featured walls exploding in color, a scientist-of-the-week poster with a photo of Madame Curie and a bold sign proclaiming “Science Rocks!”

There was also the classroom pet: a dull orange Gecko lizard named Ronald Weasly after Harry Potter’s red-headed buddy, housed in a glass aquarium beside a second aquarium holding a walking stick critter. Mrs. Garcia’s enthusiasm was palpable, like an instructor right out of grad school.

“I’m not a book teacher,” she proudly acknowledged. “The kids love it. It motivates them. I want them to walk out of here with a knowledge base, but also a love for science. So if I make it fun and exciting and crazy, it is more fun for them. And I think it just sticks with them better. Definitely.”

Mrs. Garcia is also sure of something else. With its new marketing-savvy principal and development administrative team this year, along with the enthusiastic support of the pastor, Father John Woolway, St. Louis of France School is turning a big page.

She went to the parochial school herself, graduating from eighth grade in 1971. Back then, the Sisters of St. Louis taught double grades, with 40-some kids in every class. Even when she taught at the school during her first stint, from 1982 to ’98, the average class size was still in the high 30s. She left to raise her own three boys,

“I loved the ‘Louie’ Nuns,” she said, smiling. “They were my coaches, my mentors, my spiritual advisors — my educators. And they would tell you, they had up to 62 kids in a classroom after they started the school in 1956. Now I’m lucky to have 15 in my class, like here with the seventh-graders.

“It saddens me a lot that the school was so robust at one time and no longer is. This is very luxurious to have such small classes from a teaching standpoint and what I can do. It’s advantageous. It’s not advantageous to the budget. It’s doesn’t keep us viable.”

After a moment, her face brightened. “But we have great momentum right now. Our new administration has great momentum,” she said. “Our faculty is collaborative again. We’re cohesive. We all have the same vision. And everybody is working for the success of the school.” 

n‘Daunting challenges’

At the top of that list is Msgr. John Woolway, who’s in his second year as pastor of St. Louis of France, and the new principal, Vaughn Bernardez, who came to the school last July. In a joint interview, they laid out the daunting challenges, but also how the parish and school are meeting them head-on.

“Number one is low enrollment, which is the lowest it’s ever been in the history of the school. The school is about 50 years old. And back in the day, they had, like, double classrooms for each grade level. It was packed,” reported Father Woolway, turning to the principal: “What is it now?”

“One hundred and twenty three students,” Bernardez said in a quiet voice. “On average 15 per class, with our pre-Transitional, pre-T, for 4-year-olds and kindergarteners together with one teacher.”

The priest explained that a big factor was the local community’s dramatic demographic shift, which, like many SoCal communities, has changed from middle class to working class poor. The trend began slowly in the 1970s, but accelerated in the last 10 years or so, with more and more immigrants from mostly Mexico settling in La Puente and the lower San Gabriel Valley.

“They’re much lower income and facing the challenge of tuition,” the pastor said. “Plus, my understanding is that in a lot of countries they come from, Catholic school isn’t even on the radar for lower-income people, you know, because it’s for the wealthy. So they come here, and they’re not brought up with that mentality of themselves or their kids going to Catholic school. Public school is free, and they can still come to catechism and receive their sacraments. So, that’s another factor.”

Bernardez was nodding. He said the school lowered its tuition this year to a bare-bones $3,330 for parents who would volunteer on campus or do outside fundraising, while the regular tuition was $3,900.  After-school daycare was also decreased from $100 to $50 a month.

“We’re reducing our rates with the hope of encouraging parents to understand, ‘If you can’t afford it, we’re going to work with you,’” he said. “If they have financial hardships, we work with them. We’d rather have them come and be a part of Catholic school education than to say, ‘No, we can’t afford it. Goodbye.’”

nGood news and bad

The joint issues of changing demographics, especially in urban schools, and declining enrollment isn’t, of course, unique to St. Louis of France. In a report last March, the National Catholic Education Association found good news and bad. While 28 Catholic schools opened during 2012-13, 148 were closed or consolidated. That added up to a drop of about 30,000 students across the country.

But on a brighter side, the study also found that currently a third of all Catholic schools in the United States actually had waiting lists for admission.

The pastor and principal at St. Louis of France have decided to look on that bright side and be proactive.

Starting with a fresh marketing plan, the parochial school has a new bilingual website. The bilingual staff and faculty have an open-door policy of “Come on, take a look at what we have to offer.” The school is being touted at weekend Masses and religious education evenings. And once a month, a Sunday Mass becomes a special school liturgy, featuring students in their uniforms ushering, taking up the collection, doing the Scripture readings and singing in the choir.

Then there was the car show on New Year’s Day, which drew hundreds of people from not only La Puente but East L.A. and other parts of greater Los Angeles. And next month, in a first-ever happening, prospective junior high students from China will visit the campus for two days in two back-to-back sessions.

But the most concrete and visible effort to spiff up St. Louis of France just happened between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The John and Dorothy Shea Foundation redesigned the school’s quad with eight young magnolia trees in big decorative box planters. The Sheas also built a playground specifically designed for pre-T and kindergarten kids to develop their budding motor, social and cognitive skills. It will be officially unveiled at an open house on Jan. 25. Pastor and principal agreed it will take time to revive a parochial school. It’s been struggling for years.

“I look at the signs that are here, you know,” noted Father Woolway. “Vaughn’s here with a lot of good ideas. Richard Soto doing fundraising and [others] are part of his team in the office. The Sheas are helping us. We have a committed faculty. The bond between the school and parish is growing. There’s the new playground. And the magnolia trees will flower this spring. The signs are there.”

Now Bernardez was smiling. “I love coming to work here every day,” he said. “It’s fun. It just has to grow.”