Catholic school plan vetted at public, private meetings

An ongoing process by the Archdiocese of Boston to drastically reorder Catholic grade schools in Dorchester and Mattapan was the subject of several meetings last week in the neighborhood and beyond. Pastors and principals huddled on Friday at St. Ann's church to discuss the 2010 Initiative, the official name of the process by which the Archdiocese plans to restructure &endash; and, they claim, revitalize &endash; urban Catholic education in Boston, Brockton, and Lowell. Two days earlier, the neighborhood's delegation of city and state elected officials met with a panel of archdiocesan officials to discuss the process, which began 18 months ago but raised concerns last week after two Reporter stories outlined a preliminary plan to shutter four specific schools in the neighborhood. Later that Wednesday evening, the initiative was discussed publicly in Dorchester for the first time as the focal point of the regular monthly meeting of the Pope's Hill Neighborhood Association.

At the Pope's Hill meeting, association president Phil Carver provided a crowd of 60 people, many of whom were parishioners or parents of students at local Catholic grade schools, with an outline of the 2010 Initiative as described by the Archdiocese's website. According to that description, the 2010 Initiative is a major process to combat flagging enrollment and funding challenges by drastically reshaping urban catholic education into a centrally administered regional system as opposed to the traditional model where each parish school is run independently. The first such model will be enacted this fall in Brockton, and unique but similar models will come to Dorchester and Lowell in the next several years.

Carver made numerous attempts to invite archdiocesan officials to speak at the meeting, an offer that archdiocese spokesman Terrence Donilon declined through e-mail. Donilon wrote that the archdiocese was "already in the process of holding and scheduling a series of meetings with pastors, principals, teachers, staff, parents and local officials (including elected)."

At the meeting, City Council President Maureen Feeney and state Rep. Martin Walsh summarized the gathering that had taken place earlier that day, at which they said members of Dorchester's elected delegation had been assured that they would be kept "in the loop."

"They've promised an open dialogue with the school, with the parents," said Walsh.

Feeney said that they had been told a letter explaining the 2010 Initiative would be sent home with students at each of the eight impacted parochial schools around Easter instead of at the end of the school year as previously planned.

"Hopefully that will lay out a process or a timeline by which this will happen" said Feeney.

Several parents expressed frustration at not being included earlier in a process that could take effect as early as the fall of 2008, and questioned details such as how students would be transported to fewer, regional schools.

The generally civil meeting became contentious only briefly, in the minutes after Rev. Thomas B. Corcoran of St. Ann's parish chided the Popes Hill membership for discussing a process that he described as entirely conceptual.

"Frankly, I think this meeting tonight was premature," said Corcoran. "There's nothing in the works to close schools. This whole process is not about school closings and that's the impression the Dorchester Reporter gave and it's still the tone here. It's our hope that under a regional process all schools will stay open."

A moment later, Carver defended his decision to discuss the archdiocesan plan publicly.

"…This was the perfect time for a meeting and this was the perfect venue for a meeting… this is the dialogue that we needed to get started tonight," said Carver. "Tonight's mission was not to talk so much about school closings as to give the background behind the 2010 Initiative."

One woman in the audience also defended the civic group's decision.

"With all due respect, father, there is a plan and there is a process in place," said Judy Champoli. "This was just to express our concern that we maybe should be involved a little sooner in the process… we see what's happened at St. Augustine's, so we want to be part of that process. We know that schools are going to close. You have to understand that we're suspicious. We only have so much faith."

After another audience member said that parishioners were wondering whether it was wise to donate to schools that might close in one or two school years, Walsh said emphatically that staying involved in the schools would be crucial to impacting the process.

"You need to stay in the schools, stay involved, keep showing up. If you don't go to church now, start going. If we pull kids out of these schools, we will lose the schools," said Walsh.

John O'Toole, leader of the adjacent Cedar Grove Civic Association that holds their meetings at St. Brendan's church, said that he had been disappointed with the Reporter's editorial decision to publish the names of the four schools that had been considered for closure, adding that it was time for the neighborhood to organize and confront the potential change.

"It was kind of like having your game plan exposed. It feels like we're starting from square one," said O'Toole of the articles last month. Later he said it was time to "Do what we always do, start a proactive movement going forward."

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