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Catholic Boys School Weighs Unthinkable--Girls : Education: For 43 years, Cantwell High School has followed the motto 'Act Manfully.' But a declining enrollment is forcing it to consider admitting girls.

February 25, 1990|TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It used to be, the alumni boast, that any boy who wanted a strong Catholic education could hold his head high only if he graduated from Cantwell High School.

No other school in the area held the prestige or offered a unique mix of camaraderie, discipline, study and plain tomfoolery, they say. For 43 years, the Congregation of Christian Brothers has run the Montebello school according to the motto "Act Manfully"--and for all those years, alumni say, students have done their best to live up to it.

"The thing I remember most about Cantwell is that I went in there as boy, and I came out a man," said class of 1961 graduate Henry Lozano, a technical writer for the Metropolitan Water District and a Montebello Planning Commission member.

But despite Cantwell's reputation for achieving high academic results, especially among minorities, and its consistent record of sending most of its graduates to college, a steadily declining enrollment has forced the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to look at an option that once would have been unthinkable: admitting girls.

Father Lawrence Caruso, associate superintendent of secondary schools for the archdiocese, said two years ago that UCLA education professor Don Erickson had been commissioned to study decreasing enrollment in Roman Catholic high schools, including Cantwell.

"Right now at Cantwell, we are looking at a financial burden, but we don't have an answer," Caruso said. "Going co-ed is just one option."

Two weeks ago, Erickson turned in a report on the feasibility of converting Cantwell to a coeducational school. Also included in the report was a profile of Sacred Heart of Mary, a girls school across the street that would be the most likely candidate to join with Cantwell. The girls high school, owned and run by the Order of the Sacred Heart of Mary, has had a 20% decline in enrollment in the last five years, according to figures supplied by the archdiocese.

Erickson, Caruso and representatives of Sacred Heart of Mary declined to discuss the specifics of the report, which they said would be studied further.

Caruso said other options at Cantwell include an aggressive public relations campaign to recruit students or a merger with another Catholic boys school. Whatever happens, all agree, something must be done to bolster attendance and keep the school doors open.

"A lot of tradition goes if this school goes," said Rafael Sanchez, a 1989 Cantwell graduate who attends UCLA.

When Cantwell students, graduates and teachers speak of tradition, they speak of a place where everyone has a nickname and some of the Christian Brothers let their students get away with calling them "Bro." They speak of students who have gone on to become lawyers, judges and superlative athletes. Montebello Mayor Ed Pizzorno and Mayor Pro Tem Art Payan are Cantwell graduates. Athletes proudly wear the red-and-gold letterman jackets of the Cardinals. Cantwell boys are seen as disciplined, strong and proud.

But in the late 1960s, enrollment at Cantwell--like enrollment at Catholic schools across the nation--began to drop, Erickson said. As the years passed, the school, which once had more applicants than it could hold, began to lose the young Catholic men to which it catered. Classrooms were half full, and the wrestling and volleyball teams were dropped because there was not enough interest or money.

According to archdiocese enrollment figures, more than 60% of the 27 schools it owns have seen a steady drop in enrollment in the last five years. The archdiocese owns 27 schools, of which 12 are coeducational, eight all boys and seven all girls.

Cantwell's loss has been one of the most severe. Its enrollment is about half of what it was in 1985. Only Bishop Garcia Diego High School in Santa Barbara has recorded a bigger drop in enrollment. "We are just an example of what's going on all over the archdiocese," Cantwell's Brother Raymond Schul said.

Erickson said one of the biggest factors in Cantwell's decline may be lack of public relations: Students who might be denied entrance to academically elite Catholic schools run by Jesuits could be accepted at Cantwell.

Cantwell teachers, a mix of brothers and sisters and lay people, take the time to help students with learning problems, where some other schools do not, he said, with its small size creating a "tremendous sense of community, and the student normally gets enormous support."

"The word doesn't seem to be out," Erickson said. "I really believe if parents recognized the advantages at Cantwell for underprivileged boys, they would be beating the doors down to get in."

The school last year began a marketing drive, visiting parishes and elementary schools, said Donna Sherr, Cantwell's development director. Sherr said the drive has since been placed on hold because Cantwell's future as an all-boys school is uncertain.

School officials acknowledge, however, that even the best marketing cannot offset high tuition costs.

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