STEP = Success Through Education Program
Since 2000, the scholarship program has helped 162 inner-city students in South Los Angeles attend Catholic high schools.
Marisol Gonzalez, 25, was raised by her single mom, who above all else wanted the youngest of her five children to get a quality education. The reason for this was the ongoing dream of many mothers from Mexico — so that her baby girl would have a better life than she did, working as a sewer in the garment district, plus cleaning homes and taking care of other parents sons and daughters just to make ends meet.
And the hard-working immigrant knew that in South Los Angeles a first-class education didn’t come easy. She would have to send Marisol to Nativity, the local parochial elementary school. But there was no money left over after paying the rent and utilities, buying food along with other daily necessities.
So her mother worked out a deal to volunteer as many hours as she could at the Catholic school at South Vermont Avenue and West 56th Street, and also received tuition awards from the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF). Soon she became known as “the nacho lady” for her weekly sales of the Latino staple at the parish.
And Marisol thrived at Nativity, often being named “student of the month.” She loved her teachers, soaking up their classroom lessons like a sponge. But then, when she got to eighth grade, another daunting educational issue arose. She had her heart set on attending St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls’ high school in Inglewood. Founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the secondary school, as well as CEF offered her financial aid, but it still wasn’t enough.
“I would say there’s a community that is built at Catholic schools,” she explains about why she wanted to continue her Catholic education. “We’re able to focus on our studies and kind of get away from the violence and other distractions at a public high school.”
Then the adolescent and her mother learned about a new program for graduating students at Nativity called STEP to help them go on to Catholic high schools. So she applied for the Success Through Education Program, founded by class of 1955 Nativity graduate and insurance businessman Ron Crimins. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Marisol graduated from St. Mary’s Academy with honors, earning a combined “full-ride” scholarship from the South Central Scholars Foundation, the Mexican American Alumni Association and, especially, from the Jesuit community at Loyola Marymount University, where she doubled majored in Spanish and political science, graduating in 2008.
Since then she’s been clerking at the law firm of Ford, Walker, Haggerty & Behar in Long Beach, saving her money to attend law school herself this fall. So far she’s been accepted at Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida, and is waiting to hear from other law schools.
“I’m aspiring to be an attorney, so that’s my goal,” she says. “Coming from South Central, I have related to many of the socioeconomic problems faced by many of the people who live here. For that reason, I have become motivated to go into a career where I can give back to my community. I feel like being an attorney, I can be a real advocate for people in various areas of the law — as a litigator and possibly as a judge.
“And the STEP scholarship made the difference for my family. It was the difference for me going on to a private really good high school and not going. My mother at the time was a single mother working at a sewing factory making less than minimum wage and could not afford the cost of a Catholic high school for me.
“Going to Nativity and St. Mary’s Academy put me on the road to LMU, because a Catholic education teaches you values,” she stressed. “For me it was perseverance, determination.”
‘That’s not going to stand’
STEP really started in 1999, when Ron Crimins, class of ’55, paid a visit back to Nativity School. He though it would take about 15 minutes, max. But Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Judith Flahavan, the principal, took him around to every class to talk to students and later have lunch with the teachers. The whole experience got the business insurance salesman really enthused about helping his alma mater.
The next year on one of his return visits, he and Sister Flahavan got talking when he naively asked, “What happens to these kids when they leave Nativity after getting such an exceptional foundation?” He expected her to say that most went onto Catholic high schools like he and practically all of his classmates had.
But she matter-of-factly informed him of the new reality: Many of today’s parents in South Los Angeles simply couldn’t afford the tuition at local Catholic secondary schools. So many wound up going to nearby Manual Arts High, which made Crimins’ jaw drop. He had a brother who went to Manual Arts and knew the high drop-out rate — at the time more than 50 percent — and abysmal number who actually went on to college.
“And I just knew in my gut, that’s not going to stand,” he recalls.
So he went to family members, friends and even business clients for seed scholarship money. When they heard his sales pitch, which included even taking them to see Nativity firsthand, they couldn’t resist. In 2006, he incorporated STEP to form a nonprofit. Three years later he put together a board of directors, which today includes some heavy hitters like chairman Rory Bruer, president of Sony Pictures worldwide distribution.
Students are supported during their four years of high school, with the typical annual scholarship being $1,500. To date, 162 youths have been helped, including 57 who are in the program right now. And since 2000, more than $760,000 has been raised mostly by individual and corporate donors, along with a couple of foundations.
When asked why this has been his passion for the last dozen years, the now retired salesman is at a loss for words. He mentions the good teachers he saw firsthand at Nativity and also the “accountability” in Catholic schools. In the end, he says, it boils down to the notion that he just wanted today’s disadvantage kids to get the kind of first-class academic and moral education he got — not only in parochial grade school but also at Mt. Carmel High School in the late 1950s.
“It’s a difference in the whole attitude and the values that you get in Catholic schools,” he points out. “The self-discipline is really important, and you don’t get that in most urban public schools today. I mean, I got that self-discipline, which has helped me so much in my own life.”
After a moment, he adds, “What I do when I go down to Nativity is what’s called ‘Mr. Crimins’ formula.’” And he laughs. “It’s success equals hard work plus determination multiplied by prayer. And you multiply it because you bring God into your life. So I put on the board: ‘10 plus 10 = 20; 10 x 10 = 100.’ That’s the impact of having prayer and God in your life.”
‘It’s huge for our kids’
Sister Flahavan — who’s the chief architect in coming up with financial aid so her graduating eighth-graders can continue their Catholic education — probably knows more about the real value of STEP scholarships than anyone.
“Oh, it’s definitely helped the kids who can’t afford to go to Catholic high school go,” says the veteran principal of Nativity. “And there are only one or two from here who didn’t make it through those Catholic high schools. But all the others got to college. So it’s huge for our kids.
“Every year there are more or less 15 who need the financial help and who want to go on to Catholic high school but probably wouldn’t be able to if they didn’t have STEP scholarships. It just gives the families that extra boost to really be able to do it.”
One of those disadvantaged students who graduated from Nativity last year is Misael Ontiveros. With financial support from Cathedral High School, the Catholic Education Foundation and STEP, the 14-year-old is finishing his freshman year at the Christian Brothers-run secondary school just north of downtown Los Angeles and looking forward to being a less-stressed-out sophomore.
He talks readily about the good education he got at the parochial elementary school, where, in fact, he learned to speak English in kindergarten. He’s already thinking about going to college and, maybe, becoming a doctor.
“Back in fifth grade, the teacher already started telling me that ‘you have to get ready for high school by getting good grades,’” he reports. “So the teachers really pushed us. Also, we saw a lot of kids coming back from Catholic high school like Cathedral telling us we had to push ourselves harder and it will pay off.
“So it was my dream to go to Cathedral,” he confides with a growing grin. “And now I’m there and the Christian Brothers are really cool.”