The second part of our first day in LA saw us visit the coeducational academy of St Pius X St Matthias in Downey California.
While I have visited a number of charter schools in the United States, this was my first visit to a Catholic school. St Pius X St Matthias was unusual in that is was an amalgamation of two schools.
St Pius X was a coeducational school operating from 1953-1998. When the girls school St Matthias High School was facing challenges, this was amalgamated wit St Pius, with the boys fazed out over four years to become a single-sex girls school again. The merger was met with great protest from students, parents and staff, with students arranging a protest walkout in February 1995.
Following a study in 2011 from Loyola Marymount University, the decision was made to return to a coeducational campus.
Since then, under the leadership of President Eric Rubalcava and Principal Veronica Zozaya, the school has undertaken a significant campaign to unite not only their current students, but their old-students network, to ensure the school has a strong Catholic identity into the future.
This school is identifiably catholic from the moment you are ‘buzzed-in’ to the administration building. The foyer (seen below) is a testament to this and Catholic imagery adorned the walls of all the halls and classrooms and statues of the Saints were visible everywhere on the grounds.
One special tradition that the school has developed was the keeping of s ship’s bell in their school chapel, which they saw as the heart of their school. Students were encouraged to enter the chapel and to ring the bell if they were encountering a difficult time. The peal of the bell was a calling to other students who may be around to find them in the chapel and to pray for them.
The day we visited marked one month since the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland Florida. Students across the country were preparing to walk out of school on this day to voice their protests over the growing gun related violence in US schools. the Students of St Pius X St Matthias were no exception but rather than staging a walkout the students and teachers collaborated to have a day to hear their students voices and to act. Students gathered to pray for the victims and then spent time engaging in activities such as writing letters to the families of the victims of the shooting, writing to their government representatives calling for action or making posters for the larger protest march taking place later in the month. It was heartwarming to see the school united by their shared Catholic values in the face of such a tragedy and acting to promote positive social change.
Despite the excellent work the school is doing, it is not without its challenges. The school is still trying hard to build its identity and to re engage their families and their network of past students in the face of poverty and the impact of gang violence. Through their motto (seen below) is ‘Recognise Your Significance; Seize Your Opportunities’, the teachers are trying to build a positive identity for their students by helping them to realise that they are created in the image and likeness of God and that they have limitless potential.
Funding in US Catholic schools is a huge challenge. The School is a diocesan school, but receives no funding from the state or federal government, except for students with additional needs. Subsequently, the schools are funded entirely from the school fees and often require support from the Archdiocese. The school fees are around $8,000 per year but the majority of students are on partial payment plans. The teachers are also paid substantially less in the Catholic system. Teaching in a Catholic school is clearly seen as a calling and teachers are committed to their faith and to witnessing it to their students. This particular challenge is what led to the creation of the role of the President of the academy. Eric’s role is now to reach out to the community to find philanthropic organisations and individuals who might be interested in offering financial support for the school. This made me particularly thankful for the financial stability we enjoy as Australian Catholic schools.
Before we left, we spent some time in their school chapel before the Blessed Sacrament to pray for the the students, teachers and family members of the St Pius X St Matthias community. It was an excellent school and it was a privilege visiting them for the day.