Near the southwest edge of LA’s Watts neighborhood, you’ll find Verbum Dei Jesuit High School, a modest, gold-colored Catholic high school that’s adjacent to the industrial Union Pacific train tracks that cross South Central Avenue.
But behind the Verbs’ iron decorative gates is a different world: A tranquil campus that rests upon an exceptional history of sports, academics, and a legacy of hope that spans more than a half a century.
For the last six decades Verbum Dei Jesuit High School has bridged the achievement gap in college and leadership for local Watts students for decades. So, how did this modest Catholic school find a way to help bridge the achievement gap for students in South LA?
In August of 1962, The Los Angeles Times reported on the education expansion plan of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which included the creation of Verbum Dei High School, an all-boy Catholic school that would serve southeast Los Angeles—along with the all-girl Regina Caeli Catholic high school in Compton.
During this time, then-David Starr Jordan High School, which was built nearly 40-years earlier in 1923, was the only public school in the Watts neighborhood.
Verbum Dei, which is Latin for “Word of God,” was backed by the Youth Education Fund, a longstanding initiative led by Archbishop Revered. J. Francis A McIntyre, who collected donations from the Catholic church to fund the construction of new elementary and high schools in areas that were unable to finance Catholic schools. Verbum Dei and Regina Caeli high schools were the first Catholic schools built to serve Southeast Los Angeles, which has stood as a working-class region of Los Angeles for decades.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, approved the school to begin instruction in the fall of 1962 at St. Leon’s Catholic Church, under the steering of the Society of the Divine Word, a Catholic congregation that has focused on missionary work in underserved communities.
A year after Verbum Dei began instruction at St. Leon’s Church, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles contracted the construction of Verbum Dei’s $1.5 million campus, backed by the Youth Education Fund, and designed by Roy W. Donley. The construction, which would sit on a former 15-acre steel plant site, would include a chapel, 16 classrooms (including science laboratory and lecture halls), a multi-purpose hall, and an administration building.
Father Joseph A. Francis of the Society of the Divine Word, served as the school’s first principal and led the school through the construction of its new home.
During its first year of instruction at St. Leon’s Catholic Church, Verbum Dei had a class of 67 ninth-grade students, but Father Francis and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had their sights set on growth. With expansion in mind, the school was being built to hold 640 students—and capable of being expanded to accommodate more than 1,000. And with its permanent facilities would help the staff at Verbum Dei offer a three-track curriculum in college preparatory, general, and business for all attending students.
The Society of the Divine Word opened Verbum Dei’s permanent campus in the fall of 1964, with a growing enrollment of 230 students between the ninth and eleventh grades. By this time, Father Francis led a staff of 8 Divine Word priests and 15 laymen. (1964)
Father Francis was instrumental in the initial and long lasting success of Verbum Dei High School–and he is even believed to be the first African American principal to lead a Catholic school.
Francis, who passed away in 1997, was inspired by the Watts Towers, and believed Verbum Dei was ‘Watts Towering,’ making boys of Watts the towering men of Los Angeles.” His sister, Mabel Fracis, continues to be inspired by his legacy.
“It makes me feel proud because of the fact that he was black at a Catholic school making a difference,” Mabel Francis said. “And I think that’s what he always wanted to do because we grew up in the segregated south. And I think he was determined then to make a difference as far as justice.”
She continued: “And then they realized that he had the qualities and the intelligence and the drive and the ability to handle all that Catholic school in the time back in the 60s, which was, you know, sort of unheard of. But he did and he prevailed. I think that makes me very proud to know that he was that person, and that he did make that difference.”
And under Francis’ leadership, the school continued to prosper. In 1965, a year after the new school building opened, it managed to be spared during the Watts Rebellion, which resulted in the destruction of over 600 buildings in the working class Los Angeles neighborhood.
Community, which may have been the saving grace of the campus during the early riots, always seemed to blossom at The Verb. Week after week, listings in the newspaper would showcase events held by the school’s active booster club, which raised money for the campus through dances and entertainment. In fact, Verbum Dei hosted annual Zydeco festivals that were open to the community to raise funds for many of its scholars.
Education also remained at the forefront of the school, not only offering college preparatory tracks for its students, but also standing as one of six Catholic high schools in the city to offer free reading courses to the public.
And the school caught the attention of donors who offset tuition costs for students, as The Verb began enrolling twenty-five percent of its graduates into college by 1967–which was much higher than projected college attendance rate for non-white students (page 8). By this point in time, the school had 320 students enrolled—which was nearly 5 times the enrollment of the founding ninth grade class in 1962.
To better understand the community impact of Verbum Dei, I spoke with class of 2019 alumnus Nick Spates, a graduate of Georgetown University and a screen writer in the film industry.
“I attended Verbum Dei from 2011 to 2015. But I’ve been going up there since I was a small child,” Spates said. “My older cousins went there and my older brother went there.”
He continued: “I grew up exactly a mile from the school. I’m from Watts, born and raised. So it was the closest school. That wasn’t my home school. So my home school was like Jordan, in which there was no real scenario I was going there,” he said. “And especially with her being right there, right right up the street. So I was very thankful to be able to go to The Verb and it was a part of my community school. I never even thought about another school in the neighborhood like I considered other private schools at the time but Verbum Dei was definitely the primary option.”
The Sports Era
In June of 1967, Father Francis was appointed to the Western Provincial role of the Divine Word Missionaries, leading over 50 priests and brothers in the Western States. Father Fisher Robinson, a Society of the Divine Word Missionary, took over the 320-student school. Fisher’s first set of actions involved forming committees to direct school activities for the 1967-68 school year, including investment in athletics.
In its five year history, The Verb had held informal basketball games, assembled an athletic program and a competitive football team. In 1967, The Verb’s JV soccer faced off in a CIF divisional game, and its burgeoning basketball team had challenged the most seasoned high school basketball teams in Catholic Athletic association and the California Interscholastic Federation playoff games.
In January of 1968, Verbum Dei found itself ranking 5th in the CIF, and later that year, The Los Angeles Times acknowledged the school as a top competitor in the local CIF league sports, under the coaching of George McQuarn. (Records set).
Between 1969 and 1974, The Verb won six consecutive CIF titles, and earned the reputation of being a formidable, if not unbeatable opponent in the local league. The school produced star college basketball players Roy Hamilton, David Greenwood, Raymond Lewis, Donny Daniels, and many others.
In Watts, The Verb developed the prestige of being the best basketball team in the region, with many students vying to go to Verbum Dei because they felt like it was the equivalent of the UCLA basketball team at a high school level.
The most inspirational part of these basketball victories is the students were winning without state-of-the-art facilities; while the school left room for expansion, the students practiced basketball in their multipurpose auditorium that didn’t have hardwood basketball floors, and they held home games off-site at Compton Community College and Downey High School.
Despite their growing campus and off-site home courts, at the height of Verbum Dei’s basketball performance, The Washington Post ranked The Verb as the 4th best high school basketball team in the United States in 1974 (powers prove too strong).
But that consecutive basketball dominance came to an end when Verbum Dei lost the championship game in 1975. And the team broke its playoff streak in 1977 when it didn’t make the CIF semi-finals—a first in a 10-year bout of dominance.
By the end of the decade, The Verb’s basketball team claimed a final title in 1979, which would be its last for the next 15 years.
While the basketball dominance cooled off, the Verbum Dei continued to reach for the exception. By the early 80s, the school began sending more than 85 percent of its students to college through sports and academics, and boasted a 99 percent high school graduation rate.
Its football team secured two CIF titles back-to-back under the leadership of long-time Verbum Dei Coach Lalo Mendoza in the early 80s. In fact, Mendoza scored Coach of the Year for the CIF Central City section those same two years.
And the basketball team, while no longer regular championship title holders, continued to remain tough competitors in CIF-sectional playoffs..
In the mid-90s, Verbum Dei made an astounding comeback in sports, winning two back-to-back basketball championships in 1994 and 1995, under the head coach Mike Kearney. The first championship the school received in 15 years.
At the turn of the century, Verbum Dei’s enrollment declined drastically to 186 students—a near-50 percent drop in enrollment since 1987. In turn, the school looked for help from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to pay more than $700,000 in expenses to keep The Verb’s doors open. In an unsustainable position, The Archdiocese solicited the help of The Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, to help support the school financially.
The Archdiocese appointed Father William Wood as president for Verbum Dei, who pushed for the school to adopt a academic and funding model used by the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago: A program that implements a Corporate Work Study Program in Catholic Schools to subsidize the tuition for Catholic high schools.
Fr. Travis Russell, the president of Verbum Dei, further explained the 5-day-a-month employment requirement for Verbum Dei students.
“As we all know, college prep education is very expensive, and private education is expensive as well, but part of the income that the students earn from their full time job, so for students split one full time job, that money comes to pay a part of their tuition,” Russell said. “It helps to fund a school, but it also gives the student a wonderful once in a lifetime opportunity.”
At this time, Cristo Rey’s Corporate Work Study Program was implemented in one Catholic Chicago High School. Today, this model is carried out in 37 schools across 24 states in the country.
While the Cristo Rey network expanded to include brand-new Catholic schools, Verbum Dei remained the exception as being the network’s only pre-existing school. And this conversion came at a cost.
In the first transitional months, basketball and football coaches adjusted to students missing practices and games that conflicted with the Corporate Work Study Schedules. This, however, was a temporary setback that the teams learned to plan around.
“We have different types of companies, we have a lot of law firms. So in the legal field, we have some in the healthcare field, we have a lot of financial institutions, wealth management, we have banks, we have nonprofits, we have community organizations, we really have a mix,” Russell said. “And bringing that back into an academic environment into a classroom that’s more controlled and kind of analysis, doing an analysis and picking that apart and saying, Okay, why does this happen and and how do I fit into this and and what does it mean to be from the community I’m in and to see these different communities around Los Angeles?”
Spates felt his work study put him ahead in his college career.
“While I was there, I worked for an investment firm [in downtown Los Angeles], and I also worked at a law firm and it’s interesting,” Spates said.
“I was able to work with some really intelligent, really powerful people who helped guide me through not only my professional development, but also my college system selection process. I personally believe the corporate study program is the biggest cheat code firm they get the students.” I was able to go to college with four years of working experience. “
While the work study program secured funding and provided students with tangible skills, the move to Cristo Rey also limited the once open enrollment at Verbum Dei to only low-income students. This policy, while crucial to the Cristo Rey designation, excluded several alumni who are unable to send their children to the school because they earn too much to qualify as a low-income family–which, unironically, confirms the success of Verbum Dei’s mission.
Despite the tension, the Corporate Work Study Program has changed the trajectory of thousands of Verbum Dei students, while the school has continued to offer the same college preparatory education that fortified the trajectory of thousands of alum. While the Cristo Rey model fundamentally changed Verbum Dei, it allowed the Watts community to continue to reap the academic and sports benefits the school has provided for decades.
Verbum Dei Today
Today, Verbum Dei still sits on the same South Central Avenue next to the same Union Pacific train tracks in the same neighborhood of Watts. While the school saw a renaissance in the early 2000s, the spirit of the school remains true to its roots.
Sports continues to remain at the forefront of the school, as it holds an impressive record of 3 national titles, 6 state titles, and 21 CIF titles across football, basketball, baseball, soccer, cross country, and track.
College preparation continues to take precedent on the campus, too. In 2015, Verbum Dei reported a 75 percent 4-year college acceptance rate, and a 97 percent on-time graduation rate.
“My biggest hope is that, that people are inspired enough to come see Verbum Dei for themselves. Because no tour guide in LA is going to take you there. And it’s an experience that you’ll never be able to buy no matter how much money you have,” Russell said. “So I would welcome anybody to come down and take a tour.”