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After 78 Years, School's Out Forever

Families and teachers mourn as East L.A.'s Our Lady of Soledad closes for good.

June 18, 2005|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Friday was the last day at Our Lady of Soledad School -- the last day ever.

A fixture in its East Los Angeles neighborhood since 1927, the Roman Catholic school is being closed by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles despite the continuing protests of parents and community residents.

According to archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg, the school is being shuttered because of shrinking enrollment.

Once packed with more than 300 students, the campus enrolled only 124 children this year in its kindergarten-through-eighth-grade classes.

Principal Eric von Brockdorff, 36, said he was saddened by the closing, "but you've got to look at it realistically."

He lamented that parents and neighbors had not begun fighting to keep the school open before the archdiocese announced its decision in March.

"Unfortunately, it's probably too little, too late," Von Brockdorff said.

One of the most vocal advocates for retaining the school has been Sixto Navarrete Jr., head of the Our Lady of Soledad School and Community Assn., a group of 50 parents and others.

"We would like the archdiocese to give us the opportunity to keep the school open, even if it is only for one year, so we can prove the school is viable," Navarrete said.

He said his group was seeking funding from educational and charitable foundations to meet the school's estimated annual operating budget of $600,000. The association has raised $8,000 so far.

But Tamberg said the decision to close the school was final.

The students are being placed in nearby Catholic schools, where they have been promised that the first year's cost will not be more than Soledad's relatively modest $2,200. The seven faculty members are getting help in finding new jobs, Tamberg said.

"It's sad when you have to consolidate a school," he said, adding that the archdiocese's first priority must nonetheless be providing the best possible education for its students.

"We're in the business of education first," he said. "Our job is not to keep buildings open just to keep them open."

But Soledad isn't just a building to Maria Castaneda, 36, who was volunteering in the school's office on its last day. She seemed on the verge of tears.

"I'm devastated," she said. "It's a very sad day."

Castaneda grew up in the neighborhood near the intersection of the Pomona and Long Beach freeways. She graduated from Soledad, as did her two brothers and two sisters. Her 15-year-old daughter attended, and this year Castaneda had one son in third grade and another in seventh grade at the little Spanish-style school on Dozier Street.

"It's hard," she said. "We're hoping for a miracle."

Jamie Rogero, 13, said she too was still hopeful that her school could somehow be saved.

The seventh-grader talked with a handful of her friends in the schoolyard Friday.

Traditionally, they said, students skip the last day of school.

"But I wanted to say goodbye to my friends," said Candice Garcia, 12.

Gilbert Morales, 47, has been teaching fourth and fifth grades at Soledad. When parents marched this spring outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, calling on Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to save the school, Morales turned the protest into a lesson for his young students.

"I explained to the kids that the church teaches social justice, and what you're doing by going out and saying you don't want the school to close is part of that," he said.

"When you believe in something, you stand up for it."

Most of the children will go to other Catholic schools, said Jorge Ramos, 37, who teaches English and religion.

"That's something that's important to their parents," he said, "to continue their Catholic education."

Ramos said he hoped to find a teaching position at a nearby Catholic school. "I was born and raised in East L.A.," he said. "My faith is important to me, and it's my way of giving back to the community."

He thinks the transition to new schools will be tough for the students, many of whom have spent their entire academic careers in Soledad's small, close-knit classes.

"We teachers can move on," Ramos said, "but the kids are the ones who really get hurt."

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