‘A beacon in Cypress Park’
Divine Saviour School’s beautification efforts by staff and parents boost visibility and enrollment.
Almost one year ago, the pastor and the principal at Divine Saviour were walking the perimeter of the parish school in L.A.’s Cypress Park neighborhood.
The conversation between Father Marco Ortiz and Maria Jimenez centered on the unsightly fence obscuring much of the school’s beautiful 1922 mission-style architecture.
Although the interior of the school and the inner courtyard had been renovated by Together in Mission funds in 2009, the tall fence and overgrown pine trees marred the building’s curb appeal.
“Father and I literally walked the dirt and we both had a vision,” said Jimenez, who has been principal for four years. They decided to take down the fence and replace it with low stucco walls topped by wrought iron.
“We wanted wrought iron because we knew that’s what the missions had, and we wanted to go back to the way it might have been in 1922,” explained Jimenez. Instead of packed dirt, the priest and the principal envisioned a swath of green grass for school and parish activities.
With financing mostly provided by a private donor who had already paid for new classroom desks and chairs, the project was begun. Jimenez contacted a school parent with a wrought iron business, who proposed adding a cross in the center of each black arched wrought iron panel.
“We then said to ourselves, ‘Wait a minute, all the missions have fountains ---we want a fountain,’” said Jimenez, who remembered admiring a fountain at a San Gabriel Region school where she attended a principals’ meeting.
A large fountain was installed near the front of the school, drawing birds and fascinating students. “The children love the fountain,” noted Jimenez. “It’s really special to them, maybe because it’s so big and they’re so small. They go out there and sit at the foot of the fountain to read.”
A smaller fountain topped by two cherubs, “Peace and Joy,” was acquired for the school’s courtyard garden as well as a statue of the Virgin Mary. When students are sent for their transgressions to the principal, she has them sit in the garden to “Talk to Mary.”
“What I tend to do a lot, especially with the little ones when they get upset and they start crying or throw tantrums, we take a walk,” explained Jimenez. “We walk in the courtyard garden, then we’ll walk out to the big fountain and we’ll walk around until they cool off. It just calms them.”
Residents in the neighborhood have noticed the improvements, including “hacienda lanterns” lighting up the school at night. Passersby say they can see the school now and often comment on how beautiful it is.
“It really has become the center of this neighborhood,” said Jimenez. “It’s like a beacon in Cypress Park.”
“We have become really visible,” said Father Ortiz. “A lot of the members of our community didn’t know that we had a school. Now, they can really see who we are.
“The lighting has brought to the community not only some pride on how beautiful the area is, but also how Divine Saviour more than ever is making a difference. The parishioners are very proud whenever they drive by or walk by at night. It used to be so dark --- not anymore.”
“The renovations have definitely helped” spark interest in the school, said Jimenez, noting that the school, which had 92 students when she arrived four years ago, now has 125. Thirty new families have expressed interest in enrolling their children at the school for the next school year.
“There’s a lot of buzz right now,” said Jimenez. “People are taking the step to visit the school that they wouldn’t have taken a year ago.” Besides the capital improvements, she credits other components such as the multi-age classrooms, the children’s choir, children’s liturgy and innovative curriculum.
Four years after adopting multi-age classrooms because of low enrollment, Jimenez has implemented the practice of combining grades school-wide as a model of a successful approach to education.
“Children are placed in a group according to where they are in math and reading,” said Jimenez. “For those kids who are ready for enrichment, they get into a group that is above grade level. For those who need remedial instruction, they are in an appropriate group for them and then we get them to grade level --- that’s the model and it works.”
Another thing that is working is this year’s increase in the number of days that children attend school. Divine Saviour students now have a 200-day academic calendar, which has been supported by parents and teachers.
“The teachers love the time to be able to get into the essential standards,” said Jimenez. She points out that reading scores have improved with the extended calendar.
At the school where 99 percent of the students are low-income with the majority qualifying for the free/reduced lunch program, Jimenez has come up with some creative ideas to provide tuition assistance over and above the number of students receiving Catholic Education Foundation awards.
She initiated an “Adopt a Little Disciple” program two years ago at the Alumni Dinner Dance fund-raiser where alumni are matched with a student and agree to provide monthly tuition assistance.
Jimenez also encourages donations from the school parents. “The parents figure out what it is they can do to give back, like donating computer paper or ink,” she pointed out. One father made benches for the garden and another dad donated bougainvillea plants.
“We offer the Spirit of God here --- the energy, the kindness, the compassion, the empathy,” said Jimenez. “We live, we walk, and we breathe Jesus. That’s what we want our kids to take into the world when they leave here.”