OAKLAND - Early each morning, a group of mothers and their small children wait for a van to pull up to St. Martin de Porres' West Oakland campus.

When the shuttle arrives to take the kids to the elementary school site about one mile north, Sister Barbara Dawson is often behind the wheel.

Dawson, the president of St. Martin de Porres School, knows many parents don't have driver's licenses or cars. She knows that without the van service, they would have to send their children to another school. She knows that if that happens, the last Catholic school in West Oakland - named after the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed black slave - might close.

It almost did.

When Dawson, a lawyer, was still a public policy director for Catholic Charities, she learned that St. Martin de Porres was headed for the same fate that had beset so many other Catholic schools in the city.

Enrollment at the two-campus school had slipped since the merger of St. Columba, St. Patrick and Sacred Heart schools in 1996. By 2002, it had just 88 students in its nine grade levels, and it was running a huge deficit.

Dawson thought about the history of Catholic schools in the area. Since the late 1800s, they had provided an anchor for immigrant families. In 2002, they remained something of a haven as gangs - including the notorious ``Nut Cases'' - were terrorizing Oakland streets.

Somebody had to do something, she recalled thinking.


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``So I offered to come over and help.''

Three years later, the school has a stable budget and twice as many students. About half of them are Catholic, and almost all come from Latino immigrant or African-American families. Most receive financial assistance.

St. Martin de Porres's survival is a hopeful story for Catholic education in the inner-city. The school was able to turn itself around, even when all signs pointed to its closure.

``Even though it's in one of the most dangerous blocks in the whole city, people come,'' Dawson said.

Dawson had never headed a school before she came to St. Martin de Porres in 2003. But she had many contacts from her policy work and religious life to whom she knew she could turn for help. Her order, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, runs schools in the Bay Area.

First, she convinced the diocese to try a new leadership model: She would be president, responsible for raising money, recruiting students and networking with local organizations. The principal, who used to be saddled with those responsibilities, would tend to the day-to-day business of running a school.

With Dawson, parents and teachers came up with an aggressive plan to market the school. They brought their message to Baptist churches and to Pac 'n Save, to the hospital and the library - even to public schools that were about to close.

Parents spread fliers in the neighborhoods near the elementary campus at 41st Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way and by the middle school campus on 10th and Peralta streets.

``We went everywhere where there were kids,'' said Janet Magana Cuevas, whose 7-year-old daughter, Jacquelyne Cuevas, attends the school.

Meanwhile, Dawson wrote grants and worked her connections to build the budget, which was once too small to allow anything but the basics. ``People don't invite me to their parties anymore, because they know I'm going to ask them for money,'' she joked.

After her first year, the school brought back art and music. Then came a learning specialist and a part-time middle school counselor who leads discussions about bullying, racism and other realities the kids face. Before, there was math. Now there is math intervention, advanced math and after-school tutoring.

In some ways, St. Martin de Porres seems a throwback to earlier times. It has seven nuns on staff, from various religious orders, including Sister Kathleen McAvoy, principal of the elementary school campus.

One of the nuns is Sister Mary Alice Ashton, a math teacher known for her soft heart - and hard-nosed approach to discipline. Dawson chuckled during one interview, as Ashton could be heard down the hall reprimanding a student for wearing the wrong socks. 

``She's tough as nails, but the kids love her,'' Dawson said.

During one class, Ashton scolded one boy for taking shortcuts on his homework. Then she critiqued his spiked, gel-coated hairstyle. He responded with a meek, ``Yes, sister.''

Leah Rollins, 16, who graduated from St. Martin de Porres and now works there after school as a receptionist, said the difference in just a few years - especially at the middle school campus - is noticeable.

``It wasn't really structured when I went there,'' she said. ``Now my little sister goes there. It's so different.'' Mark DeMarco, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Oakland, commended Dawson's work and said the approach taken by St. Martin de Porres might work for other schools. But he noted that the school received a $280,000 subsidy from the diocese this year, a much larger amount than other schools.

``We're really trying to work on that kind of model,'' he said. ``The issue is, how do you fund it?''

Dawson, who estimates that she works about 80 hours a week, said she hopes to groom someone to take her place - but not anytime soon.``When I initially came, I thought I would stay three years. I had no idea how much needed to be done, or how,'' she said.

``I'm in here for the long haul.''

Now that Dawson has pulled St. Martin de Porres safely into the 21st century, the question becomes: Will others step forward to push the city's Catholic schools into a brighter future?