Lynette Molina works on a iPad in first grade class of teacher Lauren Garcia at St. Anthony of Padua School in Gardena. The 100-year-old Catholic school is
Lynette Molina works on a iPad in first grade class of teacher Lauren Garcia at St. Anthony of Padua School in Gardena. The 100-year-old Catholic school is fighting for its survival in a rough economy, but is energized with a new principal and reforms. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

The grainy, black-and-white photos on the wall of the principal's office at St. Anthony of Padua School in Gardena offer a telling story of change.

In the photos, grim-faced nuns and the young students they taught stand before a row of tents erected to handle an overflow of students who couldn't fit in the classrooms.

Now, the 80-year-old school of a 100-year-old church faces the opposite problem.

Owing mostly to the stagnant economy, enrollment at the K-8 school - like so many other parochial schools across the state and nation - has suffered a slow but steady decline, shrinking from 210 just before the onset of the Great Recession to an anemic 158 this fall.

By last spring, fundraising drives were being characterized as a fight for survival. Then came the new principal, Micah Sumner, a 31-year-old whose penchant for corduroy sport coats and square-end ties lends him a certain hipster appeal.

Since his arrival in the fall, the school seems to have become unstuck in time, leaping from last century in temperament to the year 2013 in a matter of months. His arrival also seems to have loosened the purse strings of parishioners, alums and other donors.

"His leadership style is A-plus; it's what we needed," said Fatima Fodera, president of the school's parent leadership committee - as well as a former student. "People feel they are being heard, and he has our back."

Using a blend of donations and tuition money, the school this fall purchased dozens of iPads for students, as well as smartboards and document cameras for teachers. For the first time, the school has a website, on which all teachers are expected to blog daily - and on which students regularly comment. All the classrooms are outfitted with Wi-Fi.

Other recent donations are not technological in nature. They include the granite replacement on the 40-year-old drinking fountains, which were caked with grime, as well as donated equipment for a playground and the school's first-ever soccer field. Surrounding these spaces is a $7,000 fence, erected for free by the company California Fence.

Principal Micah Sumner chats with a student at St. Anthony of Padua School in Gardena.
Principal Micah Sumner chats with a student at St. Anthony of Padua School in Gardena. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
Even the basketball hoops on the blacktops have been spruced up, with their once-naked rims now festooned with nets.

Still more changes are pedagogical. Just this year, the school began admitting kindergartners.

Sumner claims that his school has already implemented new national standards - called Common Core - that call for more in-depth teaching, and which must be implemented in all California public schools by 2014-15.

"Because we're a private school, we can make changes instantly," he said. "There's not a bureaucracy that I have to answer to. I work directly with the pastor, and it was as simple as: `Hey, we need to do Common Core."'

Sumner is also trying to get the school back to its Catholic roots. Students are expected to don formalwear for Friday morning Mass, and now begin every morning with a prayer.

But is it all enough to keep the school open and thriving?

Unlike the parochial schools in the South Bay beach cities, St. Anthony draws from a client base that often struggles to pay tuition, which hovers around $4,000 a year per student. Many of its students - 85 percent of whom are Latino - come from working-class families, and it isn't uncommon for parents to lose their jobs midyear.

Sumner claims this is the lowest private-school tuition in the South Bay, and he intends to keep it that way. But he put a stop to allowing families to stay at the school when they cannot make minimum payments.

Natalia Cetz, 7, 2nd grade, sings in the choir during morning mass at St. Anthony of Padua School in Gardena along with her schoolmates.
Natalia Cetz, 7, 2nd grade, sings in the choir during morning mass at St. Anthony of Padua School in Gardena along with her schoolmates. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

"I have had to turn families away," he said. "We do need a certain amount."

Sumner says he feels their pain. Because he sends three of his four children to the school (the fourth is still too young), he can't afford a nice car.

"I drive a 2000 Honda Civic with a big ugly dent in the back," he said. "I drive it very happily because that's what it's taken to send my kids to a Catholic school."

A graduate of California State University, Fullerton, the Orange County native most recently worked as a history teacher at another Catholic school. Perhaps not surprisingly, Sumner's thesis for his master's degree in education-administration focused on incorporating technology in the classroom. 

In one sense, Sumner's arrival to the school seems almost preordained. In September, after he'd landed the job, he learned that his mother had attended the school.

It was a neat discovery, but also increased the pressure he feels to succeed.

"I feel it upon my shoulders to continue 100 years of excellence," he said.

rob.kuznia@dailybreeze.com

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