From third through eighth grade (from 1945 to 1951), John Parker attended Ascension School, living nearby and walking to school with his brothers. His favorite memory is Sister St. George coming outside to greet the boys on the playground.
“We’d go up to her and we’d say, ‘Do you have a ball?’ And she always had some with her,” Parker said a day before the South Los Angeles school celebrated its 75th anniversary at an April 14 gala at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “I don’t know where she kept them in that long black habit, but she was a pretty-good-sized woman. Believe it or not, she pulled out a basketball one time.”
The 76-year-old self-employed craftsman, who lives in San Dimas and belongs to St. Louise de Marillac Church, Covina, also learned some self-deprecating humor from the Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
“I recall one story she told us about being so homely that she was afraid her folks would leave her on a corner some day and they wouldn’t come back to pick her up,” he said, laughing at the memory.
Peggy Allen, 70, went all the way through Ascension, from first to eighth grade, graduating in 1956. Her favorite teacher was Sister Daniel in eighth grade.
“I’ll never forget her,” she said with a chuckle. “She was strict and knew what everyone was doing at every second. But we weren’t afraid of her. We respected her. We would never cross her. And if she ever called your parents, that would have been the end of the world.”Her best memory was when she was picked to work in the library. “Sister Joan of Arc just recognized something in me, because I was pretty quick at learning stuff,” Allen recalled. “We didn’t even have a full-time library. A mother came in and opened it on Wednesdays. And I got to go in there, and I was only in fourth grade.”
Sisters of St. Joseph
Ascension Parish started as a mission of nearby Mother of Sorrows Parish in 1923. Six years later the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet began teaching catechism to the children of Ascension and then in the late 1930s staffed the newly built reinforced brick four-classroom parochial school. Archbishop John Cantwell, who headed the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, blessed the building.
The neighborhoods near the corner of Figueroa Street and 111th Place were mostly settled by French Canadians in the early years of Ascension Parish. And it continued to serve mostly white families until the early 1960s, when African Americans became predominant. Today the community is home to mainly low-income and working class Latinos, whose children make up almost all of the school’s 250 students. More than 95 percent qualify for the government-subsidized food program. And most are receiving tuition awards from the Catholic Education Foundation.
“Honestly, I don’t know what we would do without CEF,” stressed Principal Karen Kallay. “It would make life very, very difficult. “The challenge is we have a lot of turnover, with families moving out of the area to improve themselves,” she pointed out. “But we send a number of children to Catholic high schools, even though it’s difficult for our parents to afford the tuition, even if their kids have partial scholarships.”
Coming out of early retirement after being a teacher for two years and principal for 25 in the Temple City Unified School District, Kallay has been Ascension’s principal for nearly a decade. She’s tried to provide her disadvantaged urban students with as many different experiences as possible. There have been outings to the ocean, back stage at Universal Studio and the Hollywood Bowl (where students got to play different instruments) and field trips to the Natural History Museum, Science Discovery Center and different companies. Kids have played in snow on the playground and heard an FBI agent talk about his job.
Kallay also has overseen the opening of a licensed pre-K for children as young as 3 years and 8 months old. That has increased and kept enrollment steady. The West Virginia native, who holds a doctorate in institutional management, has also stressed technology.
“All of our students, even the kindergarten kids, go to the computer lab, and we have computers in kindergarten-through-fourth grade,” she reported. “And we’re close to being a ‘STEM’ [science, technology, engineering and math] school. Because we’re the information society right now and children are going to learn through computers.”
But Kallay said what makes Ascension School really special is something harder to quantify, something that harkens back to the little red schoolhouse with its multiple grades in a single room.
“We think of ourselves as one family, and we have the older children work with the younger,” she explained. “One of the goals for the 21st century is to learn how to work with other people, how to communicate with others not like you. So we have a system set up where we have three grade levels working every month on a project. The children sit together in church and sometimes eat lunch together outside. So we really stress the community family.”
Teachers, alums and donors
But how has this little parochial school in L.A.’s inner city survived drastic demographic shifts, severe economic downturns, radically changing teaching philosophies and even destructive civil unrest for three-quarters of a century? The principal said it starts with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who served at Ascension until the mid-1970s and laid a solid foundation and spirit.
“We’ve tried to keep their values,” said Kallay. “So that foundation the Sisters laid here continues to keep going.” Another more recent reason for the parochial school’s longevity, according to Kallay, is dedicated lay teachers like Yessica Chacon, who is in her seventh year at the inner-city school. The 32-year-old second-grade teacher turned down a better-paying teaching job at a public school, where she had been a teacher’s assistant while earning her college degree. She praised the good communication between the principal and teachers as well as how parents were more involved in their children’s education at the parochial school.
When asked about Ascension reaching its 75th anniversary, Chacon exclaimed, “Wow! Capital letters: Wow! It’s amazing how long it’s been here. I was just overwhelmed when I found out. I think Dr. Kallay has played a big part. At our staff meetings, she says straight out: ‘This is what I want to happen and see in five years. But I need your help.’ So there’s a lot of communication.“ Also, we have a close relationship with parents. I always tell them, ‘My classroom is always open. You can sit in the back as long as you want.’ That makes them comfortable, and that’s why I believe the school has been open for quite a while.”
The last reason given by the principal for why Ascension School is still going strong in South Los Angeles is the hands-on support of alums like John Parker, who repairs everything from leaky faucets to broken desks, and Peggy Allen, who volunteers at the after-school program doing arts and crafts. And then, of course, there are involved donors like Mark Wahlberg. The movie actor was instrumental in getting Taco Bell’s corporate support for the computer lab, and now is providing tuition assistance for a cohort of ten students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Wahlberg was honored April 14 at Ascension’s “Education in Action” 2013 Gala.
“Besides supporting us, Mark just comes and visits our school,” Kallay said. “He plays basketball or talks to students in their classrooms, telling them they have to work hard to be successful. He and other donors have done an awful lot for this school to keep it going.” When the principal is asked why she came out of retirement to head the parochial school at 111th Place, she didn’t have to think before responding.“I believe that children here in the inner-city deserve the same type of education we give our students in the more affluent areas. And I’m just trying to let them know that education is the way out of poverty.”