At the end of June last year, when Raymond Saborio took over as principal of Sacred Heart High School, it’s safe to say he faced a few challenges.

He was not only the first lay principal at the storied all-girls’ secondary school in Lincoln Heights, founded and run by the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose since 1907. He was also the first male principal.

And then there was the unsettling immediate reality that only 36 eighth-grade graduates had registered as incoming freshmen for the 2013-14 school year.

Saborio had cut his teeth as principal at parochial elementary schools, including Maria Regina in Gardena and St. Thomas the Apostle in Los Angeles. But this was decidedly different.

Friends had good-naturedly kidded him about working for the first time at an all-girls’ academic institution. Even his wife, Lucia — an eighth-grade teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Rose Hills, in East L.A. — had misgivings about him taking over the reins of a high school in such a troubled financial and low enrollment state.

Moreover, he was replacing a woman religious, the last in a century-plus line of Dominican Sisters. “There was a lot of hurt, there was a lot of anger,” he recalled, sitting at an unfinished wood, makeshift table in the center of what was a classroom and now serves as his office. The two-story, sandy-brick school fronting Griffin Avenue is tucked right into the neighborhood of ’60s’ apartments interrupted by small stucco homes, with a community feel almost palpable.

“We needed to stop the bleeding right away — start building and nurturing,” the outgoing educator recalled on a recent early afternoon.

His first instinct was to simply call potential students as well as every Catholic school elementary principal in the area. And by August, 61 semi-anxious freshmen girls were now sitting behind desks at Sacred Heart High School, wondering what this single-sex educational thing was all about.

They didn’t have long to find out.

Over the summer, Saborio had been doing some serious studying himself. He learned that 66 million school-age girls worldwide did not attend school. When they grew up, these women would be the primary wage earners in 40 percent of the planet’s households. Their earnings, however, wouldn’t come close to men’s.

And it wasn’t much of a surprise to read that California women remained vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. But he was taken aback to find out that 18 percent of the state’s girls and women live in poverty, with more than half being Latinas.

It also amazed him that minority girls in the United States — like Sacred Heart’s nearly all-Latinas student body — are one-third more likely to be the victims of crime. And in California, four-out-of-ten girls and women in their lifetime are victims of violence by their partners.

So a clear, unmitigated thought shot through the new high school principal’s brain:

 “We don’t want our girls to be victims. We want our girls to shatter these barriers, these cultural and societal and family patriarchal inequalities and injustices. And we want our girls to be great and show their greatness. And we want girls to definitely be a light unto each other. And we truly believe when you empower, when you educate a girl, you educate the community, because she’s probably going to be a wife, a mother.”

 ‘You can be great’

The result was a new school-wide program at Sacred Heart: “Empowering Tomorrow’s Catholic Woman.”

In practice this past school year, it took the concrete form of a required yearlong class on “Leadership and Empowerment.” A forum series brought in speakers who talked about their own life struggles as Hispanic women. Students for the first time celebrated the UN’s “International Day of the Girl” with a panel of experts on female issues as varied as STEM education and human trafficking. In addition, students were sent to leadership conferences and conducted leadership retreats.

“The message,” explained Saborio, “is ‘Hey, girls! Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it, because you can. You can be great and share your greatness with others.’”

The principal says in empowering developing female teenagers, it really helps to be an all-girls’ high school. In the single-sex educational environment, studies show that girls are inclined to do better academically and socially, forming a stronger bond of sisterhood.

“And the girls are kind of like stress free,” he noted. “They can be themselves and not wear makeup. You know, our girls are amazing. And, unfortunately, they live tough lives, especially in the inner city. They get put down quite a bit. There are emotional issues. We’ve had maybe six girls who tried to kill themselves this year. The majority of our families are broken families, single-parent.

“They’re worried,” he added. “Our students worry about the finances at home. They’re worried that their parents can’t put food on the table and things like that. But their parents, time and time again, come in and tell me, ‘I want a Catholic education for my daughter. I know the value of it.’ And that’s the conundrum.”

The economic challenge is truly daunting. Eighty-five percent, or 170 of the 200 girls at Sacred Heart, receive financial assistance. And while the actual cost to educate a student is $10,000, the high school’s published tuition rate is actually $7,000. But the families of most students, 70 percent of whom are living below the federal poverty line, can only afford to pay $3,000 at most.

The difference is made up by yearly tuition awards and grants from the Catholic Education Foundation, Specialty Family Foundation and other Catholic school-friendly foundations, alums and individuals. Last year alone, Sacred Heart awarded $500,000 in financial aid.

“But moving into the future, that needs to increase,” the principal pointed out, “or else we’re not going to be able to survive. Because, more and more, these families are coming to us saying, ‘We need more and more help.’ There’s not a lot of disposable income around here.”

Besides his summer research on girls and women, Saborio was inspired to create “Empowering Tomorrow’s Catholic Woman” by something way more personal. His daughter Melania, who just finished kindergarten at St. Christopher School in West Covina, had come to him complaining, “I don’t like the way my hair looks.”

Which elicited from her daddy, “Oh, you’re beautiful.”

But it got him thinking outside the box. “So I see what the girls here at Sacred Heart are going through,” he said. “And I don’t want my daughter to have low self-esteem and things like that. I found, maybe, a new or different appreciation for girls.”