OAKLAND — While waiting with her family in the front lobby of St. Martin de Porres school, 5-year-old Natalie Sowers quietly excused herself. Moments later, her mother looked up and saw her kneeling before a nativity scene, hands folded and head bowed.

"This here is my prayer box," Carolyn Jefferson said about her daughter, after she returned.

Like many families at St. Martin de Porres, Jefferson's family is Baptist. Jefferson chose to send Natalie to the Catholic school because it seemed a good alternative to the public school system and it was close to their neighborhood.

But she didn't anticipate that her daughter and niece would come home singing songs from Mass. Or that her 8-year-old son, Aaron Jefferson, would ask her one evening if the two of them could "feed the homeless, and not just for the holidays."

Looking fondly at her son, who seemed mildly embarrassed that his project had been made public, Jefferson said, "They've become really compassionate kids."

As the Catholic school system shrinks at an unnerving rate, church and school leaders know they need to more clearly emphasize what distinguishes it from other school options. A recent diocesan survey of parents showed that religious values were the most important factor in their decision to give their children a Catholic education, followed by safety, structure and discipline.

Regardless of their religious beliefs, parents at St.


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Martin de Porres seem to appreciate the school's blend of morality and academic rigor. In fact, the school's president, Sister Barbara Dawson, said her non-Catholic, African-American parents have a common critique: They don't take the children to church often enough.

"The kids, they really enjoy it when they have Mass, because they get to know more about God from a different perspective," Jefferson said.

Takeisha White, a St. Martin de Porres parent who is not Catholic, said she wondered at first how her daughter, Kayloni Killingsworth, would fare in a Catholic environment.

"Kindergarten went past. She was writing, she was reading. First grade went around, and it worked for me," White said. "I just like the outcome."

Janet Magana Cuevas, a part-time teacher's aide whose husband stocks shelves for a local store, thought the tuition would be out of the family's reach.

Her concerns came from personal experience. Her own parochial education was cut short for that reason. Financial hardship caused Magana Cuevas' parents to take her out of the former St. Patrick School — the same campus where her daughter will likely attend middle school — after first grade.

"My mom really regretted it," she said.

But when she talked to Dawson about St. Martin de Porres, she recalled, "The first thing she said was, 'Don't worry, we have financial aid.'"

The Cuevas family rarely goes out to eat or spend money on extras now that their 7-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, attends Catholic school. At their West Oakland home, when Jacquelyne scribbled on a notebook, her mother gently told her not to waste paper.

"We get kind of tight at the end of the month," she said.

But Magana Cuevas said it is worth the sacrifice, especially since her family is Catholic. "They have a different way of teaching, I feel. It's smaller classes, too. To me, that was very important, to have her in a place that I feel she's really learning," she said.

Now, Magana Cuevas recruits others to send their children to St. Martin de Porres. She convinced her mom to send her younger sister, 13-year-old Karen Magana, to the school.

Karen said she didn't think of herself as a good student before she transferred to St. Martin de Porres in fourth grade. She didn't used to "get things" in class, she said. At her new school, she quickly found that teachers would work with her until she did get it.

"Now I know that I'm actually, well, smart," she said.

Leah Rollins, 16, a junior at Holy Names High School, is a St. Martin de Porres graduate who plans to send her own children to Catholic school one day — after she becomes a nurse practitioner. 

"Wherever you are, if you want to learn, you'll learn," Rollins said. "I know a lot of people in the public schools, and there you have an option to learn. In Catholic school, if you're going to be here, you are going to learn."