Los Angeles Catholic school thrives in an area marked by gang violence

Dolores Mission 2 Students walk in a line with a teacher in Dolores Mission School in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. | Dolores Mission School

Dolores Mission grade school in Los Angeles didn’t always have the reputation it has today. A few decades ago, the area surrounding the church and school had one of the highest concentrations of gang activity in an already dangerous metropolis. 

“We didn’t always have the reputation of being a stellar school. In fact, we had a lot of issues. The gangs very much control our surroundings,” Karina Moreno-Corgan, the school’s president of nine years, told CNA. 

But in recent years, thanks in part to a Catholic organization that supports Latino leadership, the school — which draws the majority of its students from the surrounding low-income area east of downtown — is sending many of its graduates on to college rather than into the arms of the local gangs.

Moreno-Corgan told CNA that of the students who attend Dolores Mission — which goes up to eighth grade — 84% ultimately go to a four-year university; this from an area where just 3% of people have been to college. 

The Jesuit-run school, which is overwhelmingly Latino, has a mission of “standing with the marginalized” to build advocates and leaders, Moreno-Corgan said. 

“We’re taking very low-income families, walking with them and listening to their needs, and we’re really taking in the whole family,” she noted, adding that about 60% of the families have parents who are immigrants and do not speak English. Only a handful of parents have themselves graduated from college, she said. 

“I’m really proud of how far we’ve come and that so many first-generation [Latino] kids are going to college, because that’s really a game changer.”

Students walk in a line outside Dolores Mission School in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. Dolores Mission School
Students walk in a line outside Dolores Mission School in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. Dolores Mission School

The school is “about 95%” Latino, and the rest are of mixed-minority race, such as Black and Latino, Moreno-Corgan said, and a majority come from the surrounding neighborhoods. A lot of the kids aren’t Catholic, but many are, given the predominantly Latino demographics, she said. 

Three-quarters of the families are earning less than $25,000 a year, she said. Thus the school depends heavily on donors and benefactors to be able to provide scholarships for the students. 

One such organization supporting the school’s mission is the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL), a group founded by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, which is holding its annual fundraising gala on Sept. 10. With funds from its 2021 Gala, CALL gave several donations to Catholic schools across the archdiocese to help with tuition assistance, including Dolores Mission School’s Adopt-a-Student Scholarship fund. The gift from CALL will sponsor a first-grader's tuition at the school, the organization said.

Moreno-Corgan said those from the school knock on doors in the local housing projects and host neighborhood picnics so that parents in the area are aware of their school and how a Catholic education can help their children. A good education, especially with a focus on literacy and critical-thinking skills, can provide a better future for them, she said. 

She also said they highly encourage the graduating eighth-graders to go on to Catholic high school and offer a $2,000 scholarship a year if they do so. 

Dolores Mission is the church where, in 1992, Jesuit Father Greg Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the United States.

The ministry, which now operates nationwide, offers training and job skills to those formerly involved in gangs or in jail as well as case management, tattoo removal, mental health and legal services, and GED completion. Boyle described the ministry several years ago to CNA as “soaked with the Gospel.”

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