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L.A. CENTRIC / MARY McNAMARA

One city, two schools -- infinite dreams

September 16, 2003|MARY McNAMARA

This is the tale of two city schools, one celebrating its centenary, the other still a gleam in its would-be founder's eye; one a tangible testament to much that has happened to this city, the other a blueprint for what could happen next.

The shadows of phone and power lines crisscross the sidewalk in front of St. Michael's Elementary School like lash marks; they are the only thing on the corner of 87th Street and Vermont Avenue that could be considered shade. Although there are houses on 87th, Vermont and nearby Manchester Avenue are sun-bleached corridors of traffic, billboards and strip malls anchored by liquor stores and check cashing establishments. The red-brick charm of St. Michael's makes almost no sense here.

Inside, Sister Mary Catherine Antczak explains it all. She is the principal of St. Michael's, and on her desk is the photographic history of the school, and in a way, of Los Angeles itself.

In 1903, John Wagner, a German farmer living in the rural community known as Manchester Heights, decided that his children and the children of his neighbors and kin would benefit mightily from a Catholic education. So he built a two-room wooden schoolhouse at what would become the corner of Manchester and Vermont avenues and asked the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose if they couldn't spare a few teachers. He named the school St. Michael's because his father's name was Michael; five years later, St. Michael's the church followed.

The first year's enrollment was 43, a dozen or so of them Wagners. A photo from the first day of school shows a porch full of solemn, round-faced farmer's children in dark dresses and knee-pants. Most of the faces are white, many of German or Irish descent.

Flipping through decades class pictures, one can see how the school grew and the hairstyles changed. More kids could afford glasses, but the faces remained remarkably the same -- working- and middle-class white. Then in early '60s, the mix begins to change; in 1965, there are black faces among the white. By 1972, most of the faces are black, with a few Latinos mixed in.

This year the school has 240 students; about half of them are African American, half are Latino. They move through the hallways in semi-straight lines trying not to push, trying not to karate chop. The girls' hair is mostly long and dark, the boys' barely there. Though they do their level best to maintain silence, you can hear a class coming from yards away -- the choked-back sound of closed-mouth laughter and quick whispers runs ahead of them like creek water after rain.

The wooden schoolhouse is gone; the red brick building was built in 1926 and an annex was added in 1955. A few months ago, the school was falling apart -- the boiler had burst, there was no heat, the windows were too old to close or open properly, ceilings were coming down and many of the walls ran with water, even when it wasn't raining. But there was nothing to be done because there simply wasn't any money. Or as Antczak puts it: "Given the reality of who we serve, the operating budget has been starved regarding maintenance and capitol improvement."

Then Catholic philanthropists John and Dorothy Shea stepped in with a complete renovation -- new roof, new windows, new floors, new paint, new heat. At 100 years old, the school looks, and smells, like a million bucks.

"Many people aren't accustomed to places like this," Antczak says, referring to the neighborhood where there are bars on most windows. "But when they come here, and then they see. They see how important schools like this, communities like this, are."

St. Michael's is a living refutation of the myth of transient Los Angeles. Some of the teachers have been here for 15, 20, 30 years. Many of the students are second- and third-generation St. Michael's. Antczak, who is white, was born not far from here, at 57th and Vermont. She worked here as teacher and then principal from 1975 to 1986 and taught the parents of some of her current students.

She believes, as many educators believe, that the best, truest hope for improving any situation, including a neighborhood staggering under 40 years of economic blight, is the children. "It's a privilege to be able to minister in a community that has familial roots," Antczak says. "The names of the streets here are part of my family's history too."

Studying downtown L.A.

Some 20 miles away, Jacki Breger shares the sister's attachment to the streets of Los Angeles. If she has her way, she will create an entire curriculum devoted to exploring the history and significance of their names as part of the first charter school to revolve around the study of downtown Los Angeles.

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