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Archdiocese Closes Pater Noster High : Education: The all-boys Catholic school has fallen victim to declining enrollment and related financial problems.

June 06, 1991|DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 31 years, the brothers of the Irish order of St. Patrick found no difficulty carrying out their inner-city teaching mission from within the walls of a women's hosiery mill.

Under the brothers' firm hand, the former Theme Hosiery factory, purchased for them by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, became a landmark of sorts in Catholic education.

Pater Noster High School, at the foot of a Glendale Freeway off-ramp in Glassell Park, was a dowdy fortress where boys from the humble older neighborhoods of Northeast Los Angeles got a college-preparatory education in the New York-like setting of a four-story concrete shell.

But after surviving the irony of its circumstances so long, the mission succumbed this week to reality that the building, and the program itself, was failing to provide the allure needed to make Pater Noster competitive.

Giving less than a week's notice before the end of the school year, the archdiocese announced May 30 that it was closing the school at the end of this month, primarily because of declining enrollment and related financial problems.

In a meeting with about 200 somber parents last week, Msgr. Aidan M. Carroll, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, outlined grim statistics that he said left no choice but to close the school.

Carroll said that Pater Noster had cost the archdiocese $180,000 in operating subsidies so far this year and that the year-end account will be much higher. He said the evidence suggested that the rate, now almost $1,400 per student, would continue to climb as the school's enrollment dwindles.

Carroll said the subsidy comes from a tax on parishes, which are also facing greater financial difficulties with their own schools.

Already down from a peak of 325 to 192 this year, Pater Noster's enrollment took another blow when only 35 students signed up for next year's freshman class, Carroll said. Even if the money were available, the school's curriculum could not be held together with so few students, he said.

"There comes a time when there is no more money left to do the things you would like to do," Carroll said.

Also weighing into the school's troubles has been the loss of teachers from the order through unreplaced retirements, forcing the employment of more paid teachers, Carroll said. The resident staff of Brothers of St. Patrick, once 10, is down to five, said Bill Rivera, spokesman for the archdiocese.

Carroll apologized for the lack of notice in the decision. He said the decision had been reached in principle in November by the Catholic School Advisory Board, but that Cardinal-elect Roger Mahony, who held final responsibility, demanded further evaluation of possible methods to save the school.

A four-year study by UCLA educational consultant Don Erickson focused on two methods of bringing the school out of the doldrums, Carroll said.

The first involved major improvements to the physical plant. At a minimum, that would cost $1.4 million for removal of asbestos and $1.5 million for construction of a gymnasium as well as considerable refurbishment of the building.

The other idea was to admit girls to the all-boys school. That change could not have helped Pater Noster without causing an equivalent loss to the nearest Catholic all-girls schools, Carroll said.

Only after being persuaded that neither method could be successful, Mahony gave his approval in May, Carroll said.

Carroll said he supported the decision even though it went against his grain.

"I love Catholic schools," Carroll said. "I love Catholic education. I am deeply committed."

The abruptness of the announcement left unanswered many questions about the future of the students, the staff and the school itself.

Rivera said no decision has been reached whether the 8.5-acre property, in a mixed industrial-residential neighborhood along San Fernando Road, would be put up for sale or used for other purposes by the archdiocese.

Rivera said efforts will be made to reassign the 17 lay teachers and clerics, who work under contract to the archdiocese, to other teaching duties in Los Angeles.

As a way of compensating parents for the distress and inconvenience caused by the process, the archdiocese would pay a minimum of $100 for each student who enrolls in another Catholic high school. Pater Noster's annual tuition of $1,900 is on the low end of Catholic schools in the area, said Brother Philip, former English and religion teacher who is now Pater Noster principal.

A meeting was scheduled for 7:30 tonight at which the principals of seven neighboring Catholic high schools were to review transcripts and discuss admissions with Pater Noster families, Carroll said.

Neither Carroll's explanations nor his apology found much favor with last week's audience. Several parents lashed out at him for being insensitive to the students and for leaving them with no power over their children's educations.

In the end, however, they appeared to accept the decision as inevitable. As of the last day of school Tuesday, there was no evidence of a protest of the sort--linking parents, well-known alumni and public officials--that forced the archdiocese to back down from a 1984 decision to close the older and more illustrious Cathedral High School near Chinatown.

One alumnus showed up Monday afternoon only to stroll around the campus a final time. Raymond Madrid, a 1982 graduate who still lives in Atwater Village, greeted Brother Philip in French, walked across the football field and said: "What a shame!"

The next day, with only scattered tears--and a few last games of pickup basketball--the Pater Noster boys went home for the last time and the campus was quiet.

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