MONTEBELLO — In 1960, when David Escarcega was a sophomore at Cantwell High School, the girls of Sacred Heart of Mary High School, just across Hay Avenue, were tantalizingly near.
Under the watchful eyes of the Sacred Heart of Mary sisters, the Catholic boys of Cantwell High came no closer to the girls during school hours than a lingering glance through the chain-link fence.
"The sisters were very restrictive," recalled Escarcega, whose wife, Christine, attended Sacred Heart of Mary while he was at Cantwell. "Though we used to look at the girls from afar, the best we could do was cruise by."
Escarcega's memory of how it was between young men and women in Catholic schools in the Montebello area is all that is left of a 40-year tradition that will come to an end next year.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has announced that dwindling enrollment and the soaring cost of a private education have forced it to merge Cantwell High School with Sacred Heart of Mary High School.
The new coeducational school will be called Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary High School.
Sacred Heart of Mary, which has been owned by the private order of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary since 1942, will be closed, said Sister Joan Treacy, the provincial superior of the order.
Treacy said the order's decision to keep tuition costs low to allow more students to attend the school has created such a financial burden that the order can no longer afford to operate it.
For many, especially the alumni of both schools, the consolidation means the end of an era.
But students, parents and alumni said there is little option, given the bleak enrollment figures and studies that reveal a shrinking pool of students will enter Catholic schools.
"I hate to see it go," said Escarcega, whose son, Marc, is now a senior at the school. "At one time I thought that if I wanted my son to have a co-ed education I would have sent him to a public school or to Amat (Bishop Amat, a co-ed school), but I'm more open-minded now. . . . I look at it as one chapter closing and another opening."
The possibility that Cantwell would become a coeducational school had been rumored for years, but it became a matter of serious discussion about three years ago, when the archdiocese commissioned a study of the problem of dwindling enrollment in its schools.
Cantwell has a capacity for 600 students but is now only serving 250 students, a 50% drop in the number of students enrolled five years ago. Most of the students come from the East Los Angeles, Montebello and San Gabriel Valley area.
Bill Rivera, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the study recommended several options, including an aggressive recruiting campaign and the consolidation with Sacred Heart of Mary as a means to buoy enrollment.
In April, the leadership of the Sacred Heart of Mary announced that it could not afford to continue operating the high school. The archdiocese then made its decision to consolidate, Rivera said.
Sister Laura Siebert, the principal of Sacred Heart of Mary, said that as many as five years ago the order realized it could not continue operating the school as it had, and shortly thereafter began talks with the archdiocese.
During the past two years, students have been told that the school might become co-ed, and students who wanted to attend all-girls' schools were encouraged to transfer.
"We haven't made any secret about it," Siebert said.
Many Sacred Heart of Mary teachers are expected to continue teaching at Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary, Rivera said.
Several committees have been formed to oversee such details as the writing of Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary's new school philosophy statement and its modification of curriculum.
Siebert said her students, for the most part, are looking forward to the consolidation.
"There has to be a lot of change . . . but out of the combination we will come up with things that will make both schools better," she said. "We could have programs that neither school could afford on its own, such as fine arts or drama."
Some Cantwell students initially resisted the idea of sharing their classrooms with girls. Many said they didn't want the school's name, its colors and mascot to change, or endure having its bold creed of "Act Manfully" neutered to a more benign motto. Others said they feared that camaraderie among the boys would disappear as soon they began competing for the attentions of their new classmates.
The name change is still a sore spot with Cantwell alumni and some students, but most are looking at the consolidation of the schools as a practical matter, a necessity that must be faced to keep a good Catholic school in Montebello. And, students said, a coeducational classroom could be a lot of fun.
"We're not mad about it," said sophomore Gabriel Arenas. "A lot of guys are happy that girls are going to be at the school."