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Over 93 percent of the disadvantaged students who attend archdiocesan inner-city schools in Los Angeles are graduating and heading for higher education, instead of dropping out of school and joining gangs, thanks to the generosity of people like John and Dorothy Shea.

By Mary Jo Dangel

Verbum Dei's July 1994 ground breaking was attended by (left to right) Dr. Jerome Porath, Dorothy and John Shea, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and L.A. Councilman Rudy Svorinich.


Vision and Conviction
Preschool to High School
Success Stories
Habit of Giving
Catholic Education First

T here's some earth-shattering good news happening in the City of Angels that probably won't make front-page headlines across the nation: A local couple is "having fun" donating millions of dollars to archdiocesan inner-city schools, thereby enabling dreams to come true for thousands of disadvantaged students. John and Dorothy Shea are investing their time and money into this project because they believe that disadvantaged kids who attend Catholic schools are likely to become adults who will make the world a better place.

"Didn't Peter Lynch say in your magazine [May 1993] that doing this kind of work is fun?" asks John during a May interview in the spacious living room of their lovely Pasadena home near the Huntington Library. (Lynch is a wealthy investor who raises funds for Boston's inner-city Catholic schools.) "It really is fun. When you invest some of your time and money in a project that ends up successful and helps kids-helps the community-it gives you a good feeling." Fun isn't John's only motivation: "My Catholic faith pushes me to do what I do, governs my actions," he says.

John is president and chairman of the board of the J. F. Shea Company, Inc., an outgrowth of a business his grandfather began in 1887 in Portland, Oregon. John's dad and uncle joined the business after World War I. One of their significant projects during the early 1930's was Boulder Dam (now called Hoover Dam), named one of this country's seven modern civil-engineering wonders in 1955. Today, John and his cousins, Edmund and Peter Shea, are co-owners of the company that has built and sold over 25,000 homes, and has completed heavy-construction projects in excess of $1 billion throughout the United States.

The extended Shea family is known for its generosity: "There are five Shea family foundations," says John. The John and Dorothy Shea Foundation provided funds to build kindergartens in 28 archdiocesan schools in low-income neighborhoods and computer-lab classrooms in 26 of those schools. (The equipment for the computer labs was funded by the Riordan Foundation-Richard Riordan is mayor of Los Angeles and was president of the Archdiocesan Education Foundation.)

The Sheas also funded major additions to the Verbum Dei High School campus in South Central Los Angeles. In addition to a new library, new cafeteria, new classrooms and a new all-purpose center, the athletic facilities (a regulation-size gym and a regulation-size football field) nearly doubled what had existed. The school's all-male student body of about 255 gratefully greeted these improvements at the beginning of the 1995 school year.

These contributions by the Sheas are among the many projects that fall under the Archdiocesan Education Foundation's "Grant the Dream" fund-raising campaign, completed in 1994. The Foundation's annual report for the 1994-95 fiscal year reports that this campaign raised over $88 million, designating $65 million for endowment and almost $5 million primarily for current-use tuition assistance. Donations came from individuals as well as the business community.

Over 4,000 need-based partial-tuition grants were approved for the 1995 school year (using the Federal Lunch Program family income guidelines to determine eligibility--income for a family of four cannot exceed $19,695 annually). But the partial grants per student of $600 for elementary school and $1,000 for secondary school don't cover the cost of tuition, and the tuition charged doesn't cover the cost of educating a student.

The archdiocese says that the average tuition per student at a parish elementary school is $1,640, while the actual operating cost to the parish is $1,965. Average archdiocesan high-school tuition per student is $2,700, while the actual cost is $3,700. In comparison, the public-school cost per student is $5,000.

There are 100 archdiocesan inner-city schools serving 30,000 students: 93 percent are minorities and eight percent are not Catholic. About 44 percent of students are Hispanic, eight percent are African American, 15 percent are Asian. The dropout rate in archdiocesan high schools is only one percent, with 93 percent of 1995 graduates headed for higher education.

While these numbers may seem quite impressive, there are still over 5,000 empty seats in inner-city archdiocesan schools that could be filled if more funds were available for tuition assistance--Los Angeles is the second-largest city and metropolitan area in the United States. "In the inner city they need more students" to fill the classes, confirms Dorothy Shea. "In the affluent parishes there are huge waiting lists."

Dorothy favors partial tuition assistance, rather than full tuition grants. "There is a feeling that people should pay something," which may be one reason why this program to help
disadvantaged children and their families is successful.

Dorothy's involvement with Catholic schools goes beyond donating large sums of money. She served as chairwoman of the Education Foundation's strategic planning committee and serves on the school board at her parish, St. Philip the Apostle in Pasadena. Some of the reasons she thinks Catholic schools succeed are the values and discipline, which includes uniforms (favored by President Clinton for public-school students, too).

Saluting Vision and Conviction

John Shea was one of five people in the Los Angeles Archdiocese to whom Cardinal Roger M. Mahony presented the prestigious Cardinal's Award on February 2, 1996. The program distributed at the recognition dinner describes this award as "given annually to extend appreciation and gratitude to persons who have given extraordinarily of their time, talent or treasure in ways that benefit the quality of life in our community."

The program quotes John on his priorities: "The Catholic Church and my family are the most important things in my life. The main reason we give to the Catholic schools is because we believe they are more successful in educating disadvantaged children. They are doing the job. But we also give to public schools. The Pasadena School District is also very effective. If you have the wherewithal to improve our community and our country, it's rewarding to do it."

On presenting the award to John, Cardinal Mahony said, "John, it is not the success of your company which we salute tonight, but rather the vision which you and Dorothy have had for many years, the conviction that it is through education that disadvantaged children in the inner city will be able to overcome poverty and become responsible and contributing citizens....Your faith, your priorities, the values of integrity and love for the Church, which you and Dorothy have instilled in your eight wonderful children, are gifts we recognize so vividly in you."

In his response, John included his wife: "Dorothy and I have been thinking together and working together for many years on charitable causes, and we did come to the conclusion about 10 years ago that the most serious problems we had in this country were the inner cities-this was a tremendous eye-opener." He recalled statistics which said that over 93 percent of inner-city kids who went to Catholic schools graduated and went on to higher education, "and we realized that they were doing a tremendous job with the inner-city children. Let me advise any of you," he told the crowd of over 850 who attended the $250-a-ticket, black-tie fund-raiser, "if you want to help the inner cities, the best place to put your efforts and your dollars is in the Catholic schools. They are really very, very effective."

Cardinal Mahony praised the opportunity John and Dorothy have given thousands of students. But John turned the phrase around by saying that he and his wife were the ones given an opportunity, due to the success of the family business: "The company has given us the opportunity to help programs like the Catholic schools in the inner cities."

Getting 'in the Habit of Giving'

John and Dorothy's vocabulary consists more of "we" than "I" when talking about their family and the projects they work on together. Dorothy laughs as she recalls how she met John: A friend told her, "I know this guy whose wife died--he has five children--and I want you to marry him!" Her friend had exaggerated by one the number of children: John was a widower with four young children--his wife had died from lung cancer.

John Shea and Dorothy Babbitt were married in 1968, following a short courtship. They added four more children to their family, for a total of eight: John, Anne, Jim, Carrie, Allison, Maura, Matt and Dottie. These now-grown children received much of their education at Catholic schools, from elementary through college. (Dottie, the youngest, is still working on her college degree.)

What do the Shea kids think about what could have been a large part of their inheritance being given away? John and Dorothy seem surprised by such a question. "I think they're very pleased with the charitable giving that we do," says John.

Dorothy adds, "I think they're proud of us."

"We don't have a real large foundation," explains John, "but we don't plan to leave a big foundation. We like to spend it."

They explain that they don't think it's a good idea to leave a large amount of money to their heirs. And they are confident that most of their children are established in careers and can take care of themselves.

In the future, Dorothy and John intend to involve their children more in their charitable work. They both recall being taught the joy of giving by their parents, who were generous with their wealth, and have tried to pass on that legacy. "I think it's very good for kids to see their parents giving," says Dorothy. "Maybe it gets you in the habit of giving."

As Dorothy walks through the home where she and John raised their family, she notes that their collection of Western artwork reflects her Southwestern heritage: Dorothy Babbitt Shea grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, where the Babbitt name is well known--her cousin Bruce is the U.S. secretary of the interior. The Shea home has its formal areas, but it also reflects a place where children and grandchildren are cherished and welcomed: lots of family photos and plenty of seating space at large tables in several rooms. It's easy to visualize earlier mealtimes at the oversized round table with a lazy Susan in the middle, which no doubt spun out-of-control on more than one occasion.

'Doing Something Significant' From Preschool Through High School

The Sheas' involvement in funding major school projects for public and archdiocesan schools in the Los Angeles vicinity began about seven years ago. "We were thinking that John was doing so well [in business] that we should be doing something significant to help the world be a better place," Dorothy remembers. They reiterate their concern about the large number of disadvantaged youth who grow up uneducated in inner cities riddled with crime, drugs and violence.

John recalls showing Dorothy an impressive article he read about a successful preschool program in Texas. "Then we gave Dick Riordan a call because we knew he was interested in helping schools and disadvantaged children," says John. The three of them discussed some of their ideas with public-school officials in Pasadena.

At the time, Phillip Jordan was superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District. Prior to that, he had a 30-year career in Los Angeles public schools, where he says he held "a few thousand jobs," including teacher, principal, regional superintendent and being in charge of court-ordered integration. Now he is executive director of the Archdiocesan Education Foundation.

During an interview at the Pacific Dining Car--not far from one of the Cinco de Mayo celebrations taking place in the City of Angels that first weekend in May--Phil recalls some of his experiences as an educator. He is joined by his wife, Marilyn, a retired public-school teacher, and Sister Mary Jean Meier, R.S.M., archdiocesan director of special services for Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles.

Phil recalls that when he met John, Dorothy and Dick to discuss their ideas for Pasadena public schools, Dorothy stressed the importance of early intervention for low-income children. "We had a lot of ideas on the shelf that we couldn't fund," including a prekindergarten program, Phil explains. The former superintendent remembers his astonishment when, about 10 minutes after the three philanthropists left the spring meeting, he received word that they wanted to fund the prekindergarten program for low-income children that had been discussed, and they wanted to know how soon it could get started. "We'll have it up in September!" Phil gratefully responded.

Studies show that the four-year-olds enrolled in this preschool program outperform those in other programs for this age-group, including Head Start. In addition to their own contributions, the Sheas and Dick Riordan generated funds from other benefactors, too. Dorothy cites some reasons why she thinks this Pasadena program is successful: accredited teachers, parents who volunteer and teachers who make home visits.

Phil says, "The nice thing about working with John and Dorothy is that they were hands-on and really had an interest in how that program was going to be developed: the program materials, how the teachers were going to be selected and where it was going to be housed."

As this prekindergarten program in Pasadena became established, there were still many eligible children living in three federally financed housing projects who needed help but weren't registered. "John and Dorothy wanted to meet with each one of the councils at those housing projects, tell them what we were trying to do and encourage the people to get their applications in, because most of the kids would qualify," explains Phil. The Sheas spoke at council meetings and also went to area churches with large minority populations "to make a pitch, because lots of times these programs are created but there's no communication."

Phil laughs heartily as he describes a more recent example of the Sheas doing something significant for a large public elementary school in Los Angeles that is located next to Verbum Dei High School. "The Watts riots started about six blocks from there in 1965," he notes. When the renovations at Verbum Dei were completed last year, John Shea looked at the Catholic school and remarked that it made the public elementary school next door look rather shabby, so he wanted to paint the outside, if no one would mind. "Mind!" exclaimed Phil, who had been superintendent of public schools in the South Central region at one time and knew the unlikeliness that anyone would come along and offer to fund such a project.

Phil emphasizes that the Sheas do much more than fund major projects at Verbum Dei: "They are active participants in the life of that high school. They go to events at night--a lot of people won't go down there in the daytime! I think that's a very strong symbol in terms of what it says about them as individuals: They really are concerned and involved, and have confidence in those communities."

Parents Prioritize Catholic Education

"The problem with public schools is complex," Phil explains. "A lot of it has to do with the politics," such as restrictive teacher contracts and powerful lobbying by teacher unions. Recalling his own experience in Los Angeles public schools, he says, "We were all working pretty hard and had some reasonable outcomes there. But in high schools today, 50 percent or more students don't finish--they just disappear! You can't accept that! You can't say that's O.K." Catholic schools, on the other hand, "are certainly providing a service that is recognized by a large number of low-income parents as being superior to what the alternative would be for those kids....There really is not an alternative for most of those kids!"

Phil's wife, Marilyn, who has been rather quiet during the interview until now, is anxious to speak: "We haven't said anything about parents," the former public-school teacher emphasizes. Referring to parents who struggle financially to send their kids to Catholic schools, she says, "If these parents are willing to put in a little extra money, then education is probably the big priority in their family."

Marilyn recalls what happened when she talked their daughter-in-law into switching from teaching at a Catholic school to teaching at the public school where Marilyn was teaching at the time: "She was miserable! And she's an excellent teacher. She said that the rewards of teaching at a Catholic school were just so much better."

Regarding the parents he has met, Phil says, "There weren't any parents--and this was true of my public-school service, too--who didn't want something better for their kids than they had had: That's a given! I don't care how poor you are, you want more for your kids than you had." Thus, parents sacrifice to send their kids to Catholic schools to give them more options than the parents had, in higher education and the job market. "They're willing to pay for that, but there are limits to what they can do!"

These parents receive benefits, too. Sister Mary Jean knows of women who learned English while volunteering as first-grade teacher aides for a Hispanic teacher. And she remembers giving some free Hollywood Bowl tickets to a sister who used the school van to take 12 parents to the famous entertainment site that wasn't too many miles from where they lived, yet they had never been there before.

Myths and Success Stories

Phil clarifies one misconception about Catholic schools: "You know, we don't kick that many kids out of the schools, contrary to the myths that operate in our culture" about Catholic schools. "We don't sort and select kids. Once a kid is enrolled, those principals take great pride in helping him or her adjust and get through." He recalls asking one principal at an inner-city high school for girls about the number of students she has expelled. She responded, "I've been here six years and I can't remember that we ever expelled-we've suspended some for a few days."

Having worked in L.A.'s inner-city public and archdiocesan school systems, Phil compares the two. At public schools, he says, students eye visitors with suspicion: "Is he a cop?" "What's he after?" "Who is this guy?" But at Catholic schools, "They just assume that everyone who is on the campus is there to help them. It's a whole different, positive kind of thing--they'll always come up to you and help you."

Sister Mary Jean recalls such an incident happening when she took John and Dorothy Shea to St. Michael's, a predominantly black elementary school. As soon as the visitors' car pulled into the parking lot, a student came over, introduced himself and accompanied them to the principal's office. Dorothy remarked afterward that she was moved by the value system and the respect for adults that she witnessed.

The Sheas' involvement in helping inner-city kids isn't limited to academics, notes Sister Mary Jean. A priest in a largely Hispanic inner-city parish is trying to keep about 2,000 kids out of gangs by getting them involved in sports. The Sheas are partially funding this program--the priest believes it is important for the kids to raise some of the funds themselves.

John Shea says, "As long as we keep making money with our company, we plan to stay involved in the inner-city schools." The Shea family has a reputation for building significant things that have a lasting impact: Hoover Dam continues to supply a steady flow of water and energy to thousands of people in Los Angeles and beyond, and for many years to come Verbum Dei High School will energize a steady flow of students to move beyond L.A.'s inner city.

One of them is Johnell R. Holly, a black student who graduated from Verbum Dei in 1990 and from West Point in 1995. Like the Sheas, Johnell is doing something significant. He describes the importance of his Catholic education in one of the Education Foundation's publications: "Verbum Dei Catholic High School was more than just a school to us. 'Verb' was our home. It was our break from the rigors of inner-city life. But more than anything, it was ours. We took pride in its existence. We cared for its grounds. And we demanded that any visitors do the same. We learned about friendship in its purest form. We learned that love was an O.K. thing. This education we could get nowhere else."

Mary Jo Dangel is an assistant editor of this publication. She and her three children all attended Catholic schools.
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