Once near closure, Our Lady of Lourdes School takes bold steps to remodel classrooms, curriculum and attitudes.

Sandwiched between the 60 Freeway and the Metro Gold Line, Our Lady of Lourdes School is quietly but determinedly seeking to maintain its place among Catholic educational institutions in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

At one time, this East Los Angeles school --- established in 1914 --- featured double classrooms and housed 500-plus students in two buildings. But through the years, enrollment steadily declined to the point where, with a sharp drop in the last decade, it looked like the once-bustling school was headed for the closure list. 

Today, however, with advocates including Archbishop José Gomez and San Gabriel Region Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala, the school has received a respite from the chopping block. And though it is still not out of the woods, the picture is decidedly brighter.

As of last summer, only 35 students had registered at the K-8 school. Within a few months, however, enrollment has reached 93 students and rising, thanks to a determined (if small) staff and community which has helped reinvent Our Lady of Lourdes as a compact, efficient organization.

Every ambitious venture, however, needs a catalyst, and at Our Lady of Lourdes it is new principal Corena Marasco, a former teacher/administrator from Ramona Convent Secondary School in Alhambra, who last year was looking for “something different” with her career. Taking a giant leap of faith, she submitted her resignation at the all-girls high school and applied for principal and administrator jobs, even though colleagues told her that she was “too young” and “didn’t have the chops.” 

But Marasco was familiar with the challenges facing principals at Catholic schools. Her husband Michael has been principal at St. Finbar School in Burbank for eight years and enthusiastically supported her decision to jump into the administrative world of Catholic education. 

“I honestly couldn’t have done this without him,” she says. “He’s as much a part of this school as I am.”

After nine interviews, Marasco was offered the principal’s job at Our Lady of Lourdes in early July. She eagerly accepted and “hit the ground running” to retool not only the layout of the school, but the ways children learn. 

Marasco came to the school with school staff having been dismissed (she has since re-hired former teachers), obsolete textbooks, a sliver of a computer lab, old-fashioned chalk boards, a disheveled library, dingy classrooms and no after-school programs like sports or yearbook.

Along with her sister, family members and friends, Marasco painted the school, rearranged furniture and started the process of getting supplies and updated technology integrated into the classrooms. 

“I asked for everything from everybody,” she says of writing grants, finding free software programs and arranging for donations. “I was ruthless,” she adds with a laugh. 

Soon, community members and parents discovered changes were taking place at the old school and offered their services to help keep the school alive. “These parents have been very accepting to the new changes and are invaluable,” says Marasco.

In addition to the work on the campus, the new principal directed a new presence for the school: a new website was launched, a Facebook page created, marketing plans were drawn up, new uniforms were selected, and Wi-Fi was installed throughout the school as well as a retooled logo of the Our Lady of Lourdes Lions. She even started her own blog (www.FirstYearPrincipal.org) in which she describes the ups and downs of her daily life as principal.

Marasco’s biggest task, however, was to devise an educational plan that would fit the small number of students and the skeleton faculty staff. For that, she constructed a program from what she knew best: the high school experience.

“I’ve often said when I’m touring new parents is that what we created here is ‘an elementary school with a high school spin,’ and that’s the best description I can muster,” she says.

Taking a cue from the one-room schoolhouses of the past, students are divided into abilities instead of merely age groups. Kindergartners, first and second graders are grouped together, as are third-fourth, fifth-sixth and seventh-eighth graders. Those groups break into smaller groups once lesson time begins.

In addition, students rotate classrooms to subject teachers beginning in third grade, not in middle school as tradition usually dictates. Once students file into, say, the science room, they are separated by ability; younger learners may work on an independent project while advanced learners will hear a lesson. Each subject room has separate tables set aside where groups meet for their studies.

“For us teachers this is a great way to follow a student during his/her time at the school,” says math and art teacher Paul Hernandez, an OLL alum who last year left a career in banking to teach at the school. “I can continue to monitor them over the years and see how they develop their thinking and stay with them longer than say just one year.”

For this system to work, Marasco has brought in the big guns of technology: Smart Boards, iBoards, netbooks and computers (most of which were donated). Two computer labs are used daily. When groups divide, students work on various computer applications --- like Mathletics or Reading Plus --- which give teachers instant accountability to a student’s progress grasping a particular lesson. 

“The programs adjust to the students’ ability,” says Bob Lee, social studies instructor and Academic Decathlon coach. “If they are having a hard time understanding a skill, it walks back with them, or if they are doing well, the program offers more challenges. Our biggest challenge with the students is getting their reading levels up.”

In his first year at OLL (he previously taught at Cathedral High School), Lee was a little surprised when he saw the posting. “They told me that I’d be teaching third to eighth graders and I thought, ‘Hey, that’s kinda weird.’” Admitting that the first couple of weeks were “rough and challenging,” Lee says he had to learn how to “really structure my lessons and not take for granted that they knew certain things. Now, we’re moving along beautifully.”

Indeed, the buzz in the hallways as students rotate is minimal. Inside classrooms, students are active, engaged in what they are doing, whether it’s a group project or individual work. They ask questions, joke with each other and listen. It’s as if they understand what sacrifices have been made by adults just so they could come to this school every day.

After lunch, younger students have nap time while older children read, either in groups or individually on computers. “We want kids to decompress after lunch and this ‘quiet time’ really puts them back in the mindset of learning,” says Marasco.

The hallways at Our Lady of Lourdes seem brighter as well: the new football trophy the Lions won this year; school mascot “Lion,” a kitten who made his home at the school this summer; and the posters that daily encourage students and staff to keep moving forward.

When they arrive in the morning, they see signs saying, “Children Today.” When they leave in the afternoon, the signs read, “Leaders Tomorrow.”

“That sums up what we are doing here at this school says Marasco. “And we will continue to do this all the years we’re here.”

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