Sister mary Katherine serves as principal of Santa Teresita School in Ramona Gardens. Photo by Ivan Villanueva
It’s a bit different for grade school children. While most attend Murchison Street Elementary, the public local school, a number of them attend a school few residents know about: Santa Teresita School”” the private Catholic school in the neighborhood.
Founded in 1950 by the Santa Teresita Parish, the school has over 240 students from different areas of Boyle Heights and the surrounding area of Murchinson Ave. and Lancaster Ave. This K-8 school is over 97% Latino and is located next to Santa Teresita Church, right across the street from the Ramona Gardens housing complex.
The school counts on important community partnerships that supply everything from after-school tutoring, on-campus health services, and music lessons. These services are provided by Mount St. Mary’s College, QueensCare, the L.A. Philharmonic, and the USC Thornton School of Music.
The school’s principal, Sister Mary Katherine, 63, is in her eighth year in charge and has expanded development efforts to be able to offer financial assistance to over 91% of families to cover the annual tuition fee. Sister Mary Katherine has been an educator since 1971 and says working at Santa Teresita has been her most enriching experience to date.
Boyle Heights Beat sat down with Sister Mary Katherine to dicuss what makes Santa Teresita School special.
BHB: How many of your students live in Boyle Heights?
SMK: The vast majority come from Boyle Heights. I would say that it’s as high as 90%. And the majority of that 90% come from right here in our neighborhood and our parish. And we certainly have a good representation of children from Ramona Gardens”¦ I would say that at least 25%.
BHB: What is something that you have focused on during your time in charge here?
SMK: One of our missions as a Catholic School is that if Catholic parents come and ask to enroll their children, we will do everything we can do to work with them to achieve that goal. And that means we assume the obligation of fundraising. So we have done quite a bit of work in development, looking for foundations, and also for benefactors who can essentially adopt those students.
BHB: How do you see Santa Teresita fitting within this neighborhood?
SMK: In many ways I look at Ramona Gardens as the heart of this parish. The doors of our school open right out to Ramona Gardens. And the same is true of the front door of our parish church; it literally opens up to that community. The parents of Ramona Gardens are very involved and help us in any way they can. And that includes specific examples like taking care of the morning traffic, providing security every morning and every afternoon. So the day begins and ends with parent volunteers helping with that. And then I’ve also had parents supervise children at lunchtime. So they are definitely giving back to the community at this school site.
BHB: What would you like to see happen in this school and/or community?
SMK: Several years ago I was in a community meeting at Murchinson Elementary and I expressed my interest in my dream of creating a neighborhood orchestra. On a larger scale in this city, we hear quite a bit about how (Gustavo) Dudamel came to Los Angeles with his personal background in El Sistema de Venezuela, where children in very disadvantaged neighborhoods there were receiving wonderful gifts by learning music. And I asked, “Wouldn’t that be a great vision to bring to Ramona Gardens and in this little neighborhood here?” But of course we need funds for that; we need sponsors. We don’t have a governement that is going to give us money like the program in Venezuela. I have a dream of children with a violin under their arm. I think we are reaching out, but there’s certainly a lot more we can do.
BHB: Is it true former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was a student at Santa Teresita?
SMK: Yes, he attended this school. I have been in public situations where he publicly stated, however, that he was asked to leave the school. For example, the last time he was present at the school was when we celebrated our 60th anniversary in 2010, and on that occasion along with encouraging the students to work and study hard, he wanted to let them to know that he had diffuculty with something here and was asked to leave (laughing). But he uses it as an opportunity to encourage others because he realizes the tremendous value of education and he can point to his own youth, where he might not have taken advantage of some opportunities.
BHB: What do you want Boyle Heights residents who may not be aware of this school to know about Santa Teresita?
SMK: What I would like them to know is that here at Santa Teresita sometimes we say that it’s a great place to learn. But I would like to add that it’s also a happy place to learn. I love to ask the little children in particular because they are so open. Instead of asking them how are you?, I like to ask them are you happy? And I consider it a great barometer on the state of the school if they can tell me yes. To me the overarching and special opportunity we have here is to introduce children to having a faith life. And this truly distinguishes our school from another private school, a charter school, or a public school. Here, we can assist parents in their efforts to form their children spiritually.