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DOWNEY - St. Matthias High School began in 1960 as an all-girls Catholic high school in Huntington Park. In 1995, at the instance of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, it underwent a school realignment with Pius X High, which was founded six years earlier as a co-ed school and located on a sprawling 17-acre campus on Gardendale Street in Downey.
The fiat transformed the campus into what was called a co-institutional high school, but it didn't prevent the Pius X program from being phased out over a three-year period.
Thus for the next 15 years, all-girls St. Matthias would go about its business, steadily adding to its legacy, enriched by its link, albeit brief, with St. Pius. Its student population, though, left much to be desired: from a peak of some 500 students in the school year 2005-06, it saw a steady decline, bottoming out to a low of 227 in 2010-11, picking up in 2011-12 with 243 and stands at 289 today - a definite positive upward trend. (Pius X meanwhile in the '70s maxed out at 1200 students).
On July 1, another major transformation will take place: St. Matthias is turning co-ed again, and will be known as St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy.
The question is: why?
School principal Erick Rubalcava says the decision was made as a result of a detailed study conducted by the Loyola Marymount University's (LMU) Center for Catholic Education at the request of the all-volunteer St. Matthias Advisory Board and the Archdiocese.
The purpose of the study was to look at how, using current resources, the Catholic education mission was being achieved "on this campus, with this school, at this time," and to recommend the best options to ensure future school growth and relevance or, articulated in another way, how the school can better serve the needs of the community in which it operates.
Its methodology called for the LMU team to seek the opinions of current students and their families; current and former teachers and staff; alumni of both St. Pius X and St. Matthias; priests, lay leaders, teachers, and administrators from surrounding parishes and schools; and educators and lay leaders from the Archdiocese.
More than 240 survey responses came back. The team also conducted 76 one-on-one, in-depth interviews, even as they reviewed the history of St. Matthias and St. Pius X, the school's current use of the campus and other resources, and estimated potential future Catholic student populations against the number of schools that could meet their needs.
One easy-to-spot conclusion was that only four co-ed high schools were to be found within a decent radius to Downey students and their families: Junipero Serra in Gardena, St. Paul in Santa Fe Springs, Cantrell Sacred Heart in Montebello, and St. Anthony in Long Beach.
It was decided that the best option is to become a co-ed school. The decision was made, says Rubalcava, in July of last year, and announced to the community that August.
The school's website has a few ready answers to a few ready questions about the switch. For instance, "We want to create a stronger school with more course offerings and extra-curricular activities." With a larger student body (an influx of twenty five to thirty male freshmen is expected to complement some seventy-five girl freshmen composing the first St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy batch), "We want to hire and keep the very best teachers. We also want to make a quality Catholic high school education available and affordable to as many students in the community as possible."
At the same time, "We must protect the financial health of the school. It is only possible to accomplish all of those goals by recruiting and attracting more students and making better use of our wonderful campus in its entirety."
The marketing effort to attract and recruit new students will be done through what the school considers its feeder schools network in the area, e.g., OLPH, St. Raymond, St. Bernard and St. Dominic Savio (Bellflower), St. John of God and St. Linus (Norwalk), and other schools in the area, including a few in Los Angeles.
"Many people desire a good, private Catholic education; but the expense involved keeps them away," says Rubalcava, "although we have some financial assistance available, in addition to the usual scholarships. Our graduation rate is 98 to 99 percent. And the rate of our graduates qualified to go on to college, including those kids coming from high-risk, low-income communities, is high compared to those in public schools."
Under the new model, the administration expects enrollment to average 700-800 students in the next five to seven years.
For students who will attend St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy in the first few years, says Rubalcava, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: they'll get the chance to get in on the ground floor, as it were. They can choose a (new) mascot, form new clubs, start new traditions, and have a hand in creating the wonderful school they have perhaps always dreamed of attending (the school's new colors: red and gray).
In addition, he says, they will be adopting a new alma mater. "The ones coming in will hold the title of 'the first', and this can be significant. Everybody knows that when the first batch has a hand in creating new traditions, of creating a new school, they will have the opportunity to be leaders and pioneers in a way that many students never experience. This can be an advantage when it comes to college applications, just to cite one example, as well as many other fond memories they can have in their lives."
For the transition, a few significant changes have already been made/are in the pipeline: three new science labs, conversion/refurbishment of bathrooms to boys' and girls' bathrooms, a new research lab and library (courtesy of sponsors and foundations/benefactors); repainting of the corridors and hallways, both interior and exterior; and infrastructure for technology (WiFi, etc.). "Everything is being re-named," says Rubalcava.
And why the name "St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy"?
"The name was chosen to honor the two schools that previously made this campus home: Pius X and St. Matthias," continues Rubalcava. "Even as we look ahead to the future, we want to honor the alumni, faculty, and supporters who built the campus and its rich history of Catholic education." (One notable alumnus: Rick Adelman, the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach.)
Rubalcava, who has a BS in business management and a master's in counseling (marriage and therapy) from the University of Phoenix, Southern California campus, is finishing his first year as principal at St. Matthias. Immediately prior to this assignment, he served two years as president of both Junipero Serra High School in Gardena and St. Matthias High School in Downey. The unique assignment was made possible when a collaborative school model was established in 2010 by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles-Department of Catholic Schools. The collaborative model ended in 2012.
"I'm very blessed with having a strong vice-president who is also the director of curriculum, Veronica Zozaya, and the support of my Advisory Board and the parents of this great community," he says. "The teachers here, though they earn ten percent less than their counterparts in the public school system, are committed to the ideal and purpose of Catholic education, a commitment they share with the Archbishop."
Married to Monica with two kids, daughters Gianna (4) and 20-month old Cecily, the family resides in Gardena
The next big event at the school will be its grand re-opening/rededication on August 9. Guest of honor is the Most Reverend Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose H. Gomez.
Published: May 30, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 07