Another Catholic grade school closes, but this time it was mine
I moved away from the San Fernando Valley in 1987 and rarely went back, but learning my Catholic elementary school is closing at the end of this school term makes me want to rush over there and save it.
St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School is one of several parochial schools located along the Sherman Way corridor in the San Fernando Valley. This stretch of Los Angeles is nestled amongst the most diverse working class neighborhoods within a 7.5-square mile area. If Sherman Way is the main artery to access Reseda, then St. Catherine’s is the heart.
Long before COVID-19, St. Catherine of Siena elementary struggled financially with low enrollment and rising operating costs. When I attended there from 1975 to 1980, a small congregation of Sisters lived in the convent and served as administrators and teachers. My mother enrolled my sisters and I as a result of mandatory busing in the Los Angeles Unified School District. At that time, the class sizes swelled to 40 or more and waiting lists were common. In fact, the year I started at St. Catherine’s, my mother had to volunteer (read: voluntold) as school chairman to guarantee a seat for me.
In the next two months, the desks at St. Catherine’s will empty forever. Students will be invited to attend other parochial schools nearby. The heart and soul of this K-8 sanctuary will move on. In June, St. Catherine’s will shutter for good, one of six Catholic elementary schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese to cease operations due to the economic stressors exacerbated by the pandemic.
It’s tough to keep a Catholic school fiscally healthy in today’s educational climate. Rising tuition costs, a variety of charter schools to choose from and then COVID-19 have decimated once thriving Catholic school communities. According to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), the current school year has yielded the largest enrollment decline in 50 years with 110,000 students not returning to parochial classes. As children across the country were sent home to quarantine in 2020, more than 200 Catholic schools closed or consolidated at the end of the 2019-20 term, NCEA reported.
Growing up in Reseda, I would frequent Sherman Way and the many neighborhood haunts that were part of my youth in the 70s and early 80s. If I had babysitting cash, I would spend my entire earnings at Licorice Pizza buying 45 records only to torture my poor mother at home by playing them over and over again. (At age 79, she still knows all the lyrics to Cars by Gary Numan). Entertainment would consist of evening skating sessions at Sherman Square Roller Rink or smuggling candy inside the Reseda Theatre during discount matinees. As the punk scene grew, I was often dancing right outside the mosh pit during concerts at the Reseda Country Club. Tickets were affordable back then and parking was free.
Those childhood landmarks are long gone, but St. Catherine of Siena school was always there. It was an anchor on Sherman Way with the traditional blacktop playground and sparse equipment, but it was the center of hard won dodgeball games, First Friday Masses and fierce Steal the Bacon tournaments on rainy days. We didn’t have sports fields or grass, but we had a library, shade from the Southern California sun and organized sports in volleyball and softball for the girls. Driving along Sherman Way, passersby will quickly notice the iconic mosaic of Saint Catherine of Siena Church. Tucked behind the grandeur of the church’s facade are two driveway corridors that lead you to the modest mid-century brick buildings that served children in the Valley for almost 70 years.
It’s too late to rescue St. Catherine of Siena school, but I can honor my memories. Once a tomboy with feathered hair, completely shellacked with Aqua Net, I fell in love with writing in seventh grade at St. Catherine’s. With my oversized bubblegum pink comb and Bonne Bell Kissing Potion stationed in my pocket, I was the stereotypical Valley Girl with a plaid Catholic school skirt.
Good bye St. Catherine’s and thank you. I learned so much in your classrooms and more so on the playground. Times were different and I wasn’t allowed to play basketball as the Sisters thought it wasn’t ladylike, but God was always there and instilled in me a deep commitment to helping others. The academic rigor, traditions and Catholic community formed the storyboard for what I wanted education to look like for my own four children. This June, my youngest child will graduate from high school. Yes, St. Catherine’s, we did it!