In four decades as a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Fay Hagen has embraced many challenges, whether cooking spaghetti dinners for 140 on a one-burner stove or persuading a public school district to provide classes for the children of homeless families.
Now she is caught up in a different kind of challenge: ensuring the survival of St. Mary's Academy in Inglewood, a 113-year-old college prep high school that serves girls from mostly minority, low- and moderate-income families.
And, 18 months into her tenure as principal, there are promising signs that the school can succeed in its battle against low enrollments and tight money, problems that have closed many other urban Catholic schools across the country over the last couple of decades.
"We have to get the message out that we have a fine school here. We have the best and the brightest, but we're the best-kept secret in Inglewood!" said Sister Fay.
Founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Mary's used to be the school of choice for the daughters of the area's white, middle-class Catholic families. Now it has come to mirror the demographic changes that have transformed Los Angeles in recent decades. Today, African Americans make up about 66% of the student body, with Latinas accounting for 33%; more than half the students are not Catholic.
To an outsider, St. Mary's would seem not at all in need of rescue. It has a spacious, sparkling campus, with a large library, gymnasium, college counseling center, art rooms, and computer and science labs. At least 95% of each class of graduating "Belles" enters college, with some accepted to such institutions as Yale, Stanford and UC Berkeley.
But, like other private schools with large numbers of families hard pressed to afford even modest tuitions, St. Mary's has had worries. Almost half its families receive help with the $4,200 annual tuition. There is a $347,000 gap this year between revenues and operating expenses, which the school expects to close with help from foundations, alumnae and the Sisters of St. Joseph.
School officials also want to build the academy's roughly $500,000 endowment fund to between $1 million and $2 million.
When St. Mary's moved to its present campus in 1966, enrollment was 825 in grades nine through 12. School leaders have since settled on 500 as the optimum.
But despite the school's reputation for excellence, enrollment slid in recent years, reaching a low of 283 in 2000-01.
"There was a concern we all had that we might not make it," said Paul Eckles, president of the school's Board of Trustees and a former longtime city administrator for Inglewood.
When the principal's post became vacant early in 2000, Eckles recalled, the board and the Sisters of St. Joseph found themselves at a crossroads as they began a search for a new school leader. "We resolved that we were going to make a special effort to turn things around," he said.
Now, though it is "certainly too soon to declare victory, we clearly are moving in the right direction," Eckles said, adding that, in choosing Sister Fay, "our experience has shown us we made one good decision."
Among the positive signs under her leadership is an enrollment rise in 2001-02 to 314, a significant turnaround but still shy of the 400-plus that school officials figure they need to pay the bills. The number of entering freshmen increased 26% and, as the Jan. 28 deadline for student applications nears, officials are hopeful for a big response for next fall.
Sister Fay, 65, moved into the principal's office, and the convent adjoining the academy, in July 2000. Raised in San Diego, she had spent most of her adult life there working in Catholic ministries and serving as an administrator in Catholic schools.
But it didn't take her long to settle into her new community--or to embark with her board on a strategy that includes boosting fund-raising, improving student recruitment and raising the school's profile in Inglewood--home to about a quarter of its students--and beyond.
An energetic, outgoing woman, she started attending chamber of commerce mixers and meeting with civic leaders. She wrote articles for the community monthly Inglewood Today and joined Mayor Roosevelt Dorn's advisory committee of local religious leaders.
The school, in a two-story building across the street from Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital, provides personal counselors--at no charge to families--five days a week; a full complement of clubs and other activities; and tutoring by its teachers. It fields teams in eight sports and involves its students in community service programs. It counts 13 nuns among its full- and part-time staff of about 45 and has full accreditation from the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges.
Some of its faculty members are St. Mary's graduates or have taught there for years, providing continuity and stability at what the sisters believe to be the oldest continuously operating Catholic high school in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.