In Watts, tough times call for tough measures

Many of the buildings on Central Avenue in Watts look gray, old or even abandoned.  In this urban setting, Verbum Dei High School definitely stands out with its yellow walls and royal blue gates.


Since 1962, the all-boy Catholic school has been serving the community and providing quality, private education to young men from less-than-privileged backgrounds.

The yearly tuition is $2,700, which is ridiculously low compared with other private schools.  But $2,700 is a lot of money for those who are living in the community.  And of course, the tuition alone is not sufficient enough to provide education.


“Many parents and families here think the school is expensive because it’s Catholic, private, and students walk around in ties.  Many think it’s out of their reach,” said Cristina Cuella-Villanueva, director of the school’s corporate work study program.

“In reality, the cost of education for one student is $14,000. And parents of students are asked to pay only $2,700, so we have to make the difference.”

When the average income of students’ families is only $36,000, how can they possibly set aside $2,700 every year?  Cuella-Villanueva, who has been with the school for seven years, said the school does not want to put all the financial burden on the parents’ shoulders.  Instead of being “tuition-driven, the school has to turn to donations.  Cuella-Villanueva and her staff have to put in a lot of effort in fund raising.

“We raised more than $2 million this year.  We get help from big organizations like the Doheny Foundation.  We also have individual donors.”

The recession rendered the school vulnerable because most of its donations come from individuals. With the ongoing economic woes, the school has trimmed more than $1 million from its budget.

In effort not to sacrifice its service to the community and the quality of education, school officials became more creative.

“When the recession hit, we were operating on bare bones,” said Cuella-Villanueva. “We couldn’t purchase new books.  We had to cut some sports.  We had to let one person in the office go.  We even got rid of water in the faculty lounge.”

Heather Preimesberger, who has been teaching art and social justice for two years at Verbum Dei, said she also came up with new ideas to save money.

“For art supplies, I received donations from other people.  I asked my friends to donate $5 or $10 to help the kids out.  My daughter, who teaches in the LAUSD, donated leftover art supplies from her class,” Preimesberger said.

As the school is under the supervision of the Los Angeles Archdiocese like other Catholic schools in LA, many would think Verbum Dei gets most of its funding from the archdiocese.  But that is not that case. The school property is owned by the archdiocese, and it receives a subsidy from the archdiocese. But ultimately, the school comes up with it’s financial resources.

Verb crucifix

Even with things beginning to slowly bounce back, looking for more ways to raise money is never easy.

“It’s the conversation we have every year.  How are we going to sustain ourselves financially without having to fund raise so much money?” Cuella-Villanueva said.

The only other way to have enough funding without raising money would be raising enrollment.   There are, on average, 16 to 20 students in each class at Verbum Dei.  But if five more students are added in each class, it could bring in more money without having to hire new teachers or raise additional money.

But with new charter schools opening in the area, getting more boys to come to Verbum Dei is becoming more difficult.

And most testosterone-charged teenage boys would not want to go to the all-boy school with a strict dress code and more stringent <ins datetime=”2010-10-02T00:26:37+00:00″academic requirements.

Although 90 percent of students receive financial aid and scholarships, parents may also be reluctant to send their sons to Verbum Dei because of financial reasons.

More new challenges emerge for Verbum Dei, but everybody at the school seems to be pulling together.  Many teachers wear multiple hats, like Cuella-Villanueva who has to perform tasks as the vice principal, teach art and supervise the Latino Student Organization.

And new methods are sought to bring in more students.   Staff at Verbum Dei are trying to let people know of the benefits offered at the school.

“We are strategizing our new marketing effort.  We are trying to let people know that their sons can get quality education in a safe, stable environment without having to pay a lot,” Cuella-Villaneuva said.

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