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A school's nostalgic presence

Despite changing times, Precious Blood west of downtown L.A. has the feel of a 1950s Catholic campus.

February 25, 2008|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

In his mind's eye, Bob Reed can see the boys of half a century ago playing dodge ball on the small playground of Precious Blood Catholic School, while the girls play jacks on the periphery.

He can see the old push-powered merry-go-round in a corner reserved for first-graders (and third-graders terrorizing them by spinning the contraption too fast).

He can see the students, the first wave of the post-World War II baby boom, crammed two grades to a room on the first floor of the old house that is the school's main structure, and the warnings to stay off the second floor, where the nuns lived.

And that's about all he needs his mind's eye to see. Much else at the parochial elementary school at 3rd Street and South Occidental Boulevard west of downtown is as it was when Reed matriculated there.

Both the neighborhood and the demographics of the student body have evolved, yet the sight of the old school looming in the background as uniformed children cavort on the asphalt playground might make a passing motorist think he'd been transported to a Catholic school in circa-1950s Chicago or Pittsburgh.

Paul Contino, a literature professor and associate director of Pepperdine University's Center for Faith and Learning, said such schools have survived "because they offer something distinctively spiritual at their heart that's very precious and that people value a great deal. There's something about being spiritually attuned that encourages being receptive and attentive in the classroom, and even being creative."

For the last five years, Reed has been gathering documents and, especially, photographs that depict Precious Blood's history. He has the photos of every eighth-grade graduating class from the first one in 1953 through that of 1965, except for the classes of 1954 and 1959, which he's desperate to find.

Reed has held a reunion of his onetime peers in the Class of 1963 at his San Marino home. He managed to assemble 24 of the surviving members, including people now living on the East Coast and in Europe. They relived the days when the neighborhood was all private houses, and duplexes and four-plexes. (Now large apartment buildings dominate.)

It was a time when boys played two-on-two touch football on the grassy ovals that divide South Occidental, and children could safely ride the trolley cars and play in MacArthur and Lafayette parks until well after dark.

"I would give anything to get in a time machine and go back to that era and spend the rest of my life there," Reed said while giving a visitor a tour of the school.

"The neighborhood was actually friendlier to children than many places. Families with kids could rent a place, which was not easy to do elsewhere. Yes, we were crammed into the school, but you didn't know any better because those were such simple times. Precious Blood school is a timeless jewel in an old neighborhood. Six decades go by, and nothing has changed."

Well, some things have.

The asphalt playground has been expanded by more than half, thanks to the demolition of a private house that used to be on the corner. A small parking lot has been added in back (in the old days, few teachers had cars). The classrooms have been wired for the Internet, and the equipment of a new computer lab gleams over a worn hardwood floor.

About the same number of students, 215, attend as in Reed's day. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, however, long ago banned double-grade classes, and classrooms have spread to the second floor of the house now that nuns no longer live or teach at the school.

The makeup of the student body has changed as well. In Reed's day, most of the students were of European descent. Today, 60% are Filipino and 30% Latino. Only about half live in the neighborhood, said Principal Dottie Bessares, an affable 61-year-old native Minnesotan who has worked as a teacher and administrator in archdiocesan schools for 24 years.

"A lot of the moms are nurses and work at [nearby] Good Samaritan and St. Vincent hospitals," she said. "They work here and perhaps the grandmas are still in the neighborhood. They bring their kids to the school because they like the family atmosphere, and the moms are nearby in case of emergency."

In a city where new public schools are sprouting like mushrooms, Precious Blood must do all it can to attract and retain students.

All students' families are registered as members of Precious Blood parish, whose church is a block away from the school, so they qualify for the "in parish" tuition rate of $3,180 per year.

The actual annual cost is $4,082 per year per pupil. To make up the difference, parents are required to participate in fund-raising efforts and to give 25 hours a year of service, such as playground and lunchroom monitoring.

To help reduce the shortfall, the school receives an annual grant of $40,000 from the archdiocese. It also awards 60 $1,000 scholarships to students, courtesy of the Catholic Education Foundation.

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