My Return to St. Genevieve

When I was in 8th grade, a friend of mine from Little League invited me to accompany his family to an event at his school.  At the time, I attended Robert Fulton Junior High School in Van Nuys, and he went to St. Genevieve, in neighboring Panorama City.  The occasion marked the first time I ever set foot on a private school campus.  It was an experience I have never forgotten – one that came to exert a profound impact upon my thinking, and most likely influenced my choice of careers.

To the casual observer, the event was no different than countless other school carnivals.  The grounds were trimmed with festive decorations and awash in happy sounding music.  Swarms of people weaved through rows of game booths, merchandise displays, and food stands. Small groups huddled together in conversation.  There were rides, hamburgers, hot dogs and cotton candy. But there was something else: an added dimension that was so plainly evident that even my thirteen-year-old powers of observation found it impossible to miss.

Unlike similar gatherings at my public school – a fine institution in its own right – the St. Genevieve people displayed an inescapable sense of connectedness. It was apparent that they knew one another, cared about each other, and, as if members of an extended family, were genuinely engaged in one another’s lives.  Though I couldn’t label it at the time, what was so transparent that day was what I have long since come to regard as the most important characteristic of private schooling: community.

After sharing my recollection of that distant afternoon at a recent meeting of Los Angeles Archdiocesan elementary school principals, I was approached by St. Genevieve Elementary School’s current principal, Amanda Allen, who extended a warm invitation to revisit the campus.  So, on May 19, I returned to St. Genevieve after an interval of more than 50 years.

During the intervening years, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about schools.  Having visited scores of them, I believe I’ve developed a fairly keen sense of how to “read” them.  But once again, St. Genevieve took me by surprise.  There was really no need to look.  It was all so organic, all so evident. What was just another typical school day at St. Genevieve offered a compelling validation of so much that distinguishes the entire private school enterprise.

At St. Genevieve, one can see that every square inch of the physical plant is utilized in a purposeful manner, and that every teacher, administrator, staff member and student is purposefully engaged.  Discipline and structure coexist with vibrant, inviting classrooms, and happy students busily engaged in learning.  The campus is suffused with a sense of high energy, yet everything is orderly.  It’s a safe place, where the security of rootedness in faith, tradition and community provide kids with the freedom to soar.

As I toured the grounds with Ms. Allen as my guide, one student after another approached me, extended a hand in greeting, smiled, and offered warm words of welcome to their school.  (“We teach them to maintain eye contact when they’re conversing,” Ms. Allen told me.)  Shaping students’ social skills is part and parcel of the school’s educational program.  So is instilling gratitude for the gift of life, and cultivating an appreciation of the specialness and responsibility that come with the recognition that one is created in the image of God.  Add a rock solid academic program to such a values orientation, provide abundant nurturing, and you have St. Genevieve’s basic recipe for providing its students with an advantage for life.

A stroll through St. Genevieve High School’s main building took me through a gleaming, high tech corridor containing a state-of-the-art, “college ready” library at one end, and a faculty lounge at the other that would be the envy of many a university faculty club.  At the center (literally and figuratively) are various reminders that St. Genevieve is a National School of Character.  If one were to see nothing more than these three features, one could rightfully conclude that high school President/Principal Dan Horn confers high esteem upon both students and staff, and holds the highest of expectations for each.  His is a school designed to promote achievement, success and fulfillment.

I had occasion to very briefly make the acquaintance of several other staff members while crossing the campus – just long enough to learn their names, positions, and the number of years they had been at St. Genevieve.  To the extent that these chance encounters provided something akin to a random sample of employees, I concluded that St. Genevieve’s personnel – whether faculty members, administrators, or clerical and support staff – tend to have served for a significant number of years, and that they possess a deep sense of personal identification with the institution.  (A number are alumni.)

Panorama City is a largely blue-collar, working class area of the San Fernando Valley.  St. Genevieve’s student body is highly diverse with respect to race and ethnicity.  The vast majority of its students don’t hail from affluent families, and the school struggles mightily to keep tuition at a level that addresses both sustainability and accessibility.

St. Genevieve’s parents could certainly benefit from the availability of a modest tax credit for qualified education expenses, including private school tuition.  In fact, the benefit is two-way, for sustaining a community anchor like St. Genevieve promotes the public interest.  Year after year, and decade after decade, St. Genevieve has helped produce generations of well educated, productive, and conscientious Californians.  And, in providing an education to some 1,200 current students, St. Genevieve saves the people of the state at least $10 million.  Every year.

Bob Hertzberg is St. Genevieve’s State Senator.  Senator Hertzberg is a veteran legislator who is smart, creative and caring.  He also happens to chair the powerful Senate Governance and Finance Committee, which is the key policy committee for bills proposing state tax credits and deductions.  On a future visit to St. Genevieve, I’d like to be joined by Senator Hertzberg…and don’t intend to wait another 50 years for that day to arrive.  I’m hoping for a return visit within the coming school year.  And I’m hoping that similar visits will take place at private schools throughout the state.  Of course, for that to happen, our schools must reach out to their State Assembly Members and Senators.  It’s one more thing to do, but it can make a profound difference.  Believe me.  I know.

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