Key Catholic schools advisor sees "renaissance" ahead through 2010 plan

One of the chief architects of an ambitious plan to consolidate and revitalize Dorchester and Mattapan's parochial schools promised this week that the project would exceed even its own expectations, prompting a "renaissance" of the neighborhoods' Catholic education system.

John Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction, leads a team of engineers and executives from his company who have been instrumental thus far in the 2010 Initiative, a committee that is chaired by Boston businessman and philanthropist Jack Connors.

Two weeks ago, the committee unveiled its initial plans for Dorchester, which includes investing as much as $60 million into the rehabilitation or new construction of five school buildings in the next three years. At the same time, the initiative will centralize the administration of the schools, adopt new curriculum and recruit new teachers who will all work for one central school called Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy.

"The archdiocese has not had the resources, both monetarily and physically staffing wise, to support Catholic school education the way we once knew it," Fish told the Reporter this week during an interview in his offices in Roxbury. "By having people like Jack Connors invest back into the schools, there's no doubt in my mind that we will exceed people's expectations. And I say that in a very, very bullish way.

"We just need people to have hope and believe in what this is all about. And it will become contagious. It will be a renaissance of the Catholic school system in the Archdiocese and I think it's going to be a model for the country."

Leading Suffolk's team is Kimberly Steimle, the company's executive vice-president, whom Fish says is now devoting roughly half of her work time to the details of the Dorchester-Mattapan effort. Like Connors, Fish is also a heavy contributor to the capital campaign to fund the 2010 effort and Suffolk is not charging the church for any of the company's costs.

The pro bono contributions will likely be significant, with as much as $12 million expected to be spent on just the renovation and expansion of the St. Margaret property alone. At least one brand new school - at either St. Ann or St. Mark and possibly at both parishes - is also in design. Three existing school buildings - Blessed Mother Teresa, St. Peter, and St. Kevin - will be shuttered under the plan. The other remaining school sites will either undergo a heavy renovation or be completely rebuilt, Fish told the Reporter this week.

The first phase of the construction process has Fish's immediate attention, as a discussion about demolishing the Blessed Mother Teresa parish's Columbia Road rectory to make room for a brand new gymnasium and cafeteria will be finalized in the coming weeks. The McCormack Civic Association will hear details of that plan at a meeting next Tuesday evening in Blessed Mother Teresa church hall.

But Fish clarified this week that he and his Suffolk colleagues are acting as more than just general contractors.

"Our team is involved in all aspects of the planning with 2010 Dorchester. Kathleen Driscoll [who works for Connors at the advertising firm Hill Holiday] and I are sort of apostles to Jack Connors. Steimle has spent the the majority of time working with the community: the parents, priests, local political reps, to build consensus with those constituencies."

Fish bases much of his enthusiasm on the early results of a more modest consolidation plan executed last year in Brockton. Three Catholic schools in that city were similarly combined into one school, Trinity Academy, which has two campuses with a shared administration. Before the consolidation, the three parish schools shared 360 students. Now, Fish claims that the Trinity Academy is flourishing, with 475 students enrolled. He says that the school will likely be "oversubscribed" next year.

"That whole model of improving the buildings is the first step, but coupled with improving the buildings is that we're improving the quality of the curriculum and the environment, the athletics, and making it more appealing to the people in those particular areas to take advantage of.

"Building (in Brockton) wasn't just building buildings. It was building a belief, building a faith, or reconstituting a faith, building a curriculum and building consensus that this is the right direction to go in," Fish says. "There is no reason why we can't re-create the same goodwill, the same feelings and community support as we created in Brockton. What has to happen is that this is all about the kids and we have to ensure that historical events and personalities and political constituencies don't interfere with the ultimate goal of providing quality education for the young people and after-school programs."

There remain some significant hurdles. In the two weeks since the 2010 Initiative's plan was unveiled - first to principals and faculty- and then to the public through the Archdiocese's website -there have already been some second-thoughts given to one critical plank of the plan: the construction of two new school buildings at St. Mark and St. Ann parishes. This week, Fish told the Reporter that he and the 2010 team are still reviewing whether or not to raze the existing schoolhouses and start fresh - or to do major renovations and keep the buildings intact.

"St. Mark's and St. Ann's are two schools that we really put a lot of time into from an evaluation perspective and came to the conclusion that with those two schools we really needed to take a second look at whether we were going to tear them down and rebuild new ones. We really need to do a much more thorough analysis on those two particular schools because of layout, [Americans with Disabilities Act] accessibility and structural integrity matters with the buildings.

"Right now we're trying to finalize our decision from a costing perspective and a curriculum perspective, said Fish, who thought a final decision on both was likely in one to three months.

"The bones of both of those buildings are very good, but as we finalize the curriculum and the program in each particular building and how that program serves the physical plant, that's what's going to determine what we do. It is the desire of the Cardinal and Jack Connors to build a minimum of one new school in Dorchester. We're pretty sure that's going to happen. There may be a compelling reason why we keep both of those structures in place and renovate them. To the extent that that happens, you won't be able to tell a new building from an old building."

Fish said that if students need to be relocated to a different site during construction, there are options that are being weighed. He did not want to give specifics yet on what locations could be used.

"We don't know exactly right now. There are three or four options available. As opposed to putting those options on the table now and get people alarmed or concerned about those particular options, we'd rather make the decisions and vet those options out thoroughly, so before we present them we justify why we're making those part moves."

Steimle, who has attended many of the 2010 community meetings on Suffolk's behalf, says that other school buildings that are not currently part of the Pope John Paul II Academy plan are still seen as potentially important to the future of the school system, possibly for use during the reconstruction of other schools. There is even the possibility, as suggested by Fish's assessment of the Brockton enrollment boom, that one or more of those buildings may be needed for a future expansion of the Dorchester-Mattapan system.

"My understanding is that those buildings are wholly owned by each parish. It's literally up to them what they do with those buildings, canonically," Steimle said. "We have talked with the whole team from a construction standpoint that if you do get into a scenario that if you need swing space so to speak and that's something that will come out with once we finalize things with the architects."

Fish seemed to think such a prospect was possible.

"We're looking at a pre-K thru 8 system with as many as 22 classrooms in each particular structure. When we start out, we're not going to be using all 22 classrooms, because we feel right now with studying the existing demographics we're going to have some classes that are smaller to start with. But as time goes on, we're very confident that we'll build up enrollment to fill two particular classes in each particular grade going forward. Our sense is that as we start gaining traction in this process and people start believing in the quality of education and the quality of the environment in each school, that the enrollment will increase," Fish said. "We need to continue to prove to the pastors who own some of these schools that we're worthy as an organization to take those additional buildings at a future date and transfer them into additional school space."

St. Brendan school, which opted out of the 2010 Initiative in early November after reviewing the various models that were submitted to O'Malley for his review, could also become a campus someday, if they so choose.

"We don't want anybody to feel their forced into a forced marriage," Fish said. "As time goes on, we're still keeping that door of opportunity open for the people of St. Brendan's and if they want to join us, whether it be today, tomorrow, six months from now. We truly believe that even if they don't opt into this program, they will benefit from the 2010 overall because of the improved curriculum. We were very clear to them that at any point in time they are welcome to join us," said Fish.

At St. Peter school on Bowdoin Street, one of the three schoolhouses that will close at the end of the academic year, Fish says the 2010 committee has allocated in excess of $4 million to renovate and enhance the building's Teen Center and after-school program. Members of his Suffolk team, he said, are meeting with the executive director of the program to identify what sort of facility will be best suited for the location.

"One of the big concerns that has surfaced is the whole issue of food service and how we can improve the quality and quantity of food service at the Teen Center, so that's something we're spending a lot of time on right now," said Fish.

The closure of both St. Peter and St. Kevin - two schools that serve predominantly students of color in one of the neighborhood's neediest corners - was one of the factors that led the 2010 Initiative committee to focus its first concrete investment at St. Margaret. Fish says that the new facilities that will emerge on Columbia Road will send a message about the purpose and resolve of the planners.

"We needed to provide an opportunity for the northern part of Dorchester so that wasn't just being sacrificed through this entire reorganization," Fish said. "And that's the reason why Jack Connors felt strongly that we spend the first $10-11-12 million in the northern part of Dorchester, which will be St. Margaret's. Build a new gymnasium, build a new cafeteria, maybe not build a brand new school, but renovate it so it looks brand new. It will be the signature of what the program of 2010 is all about as relates to Dorchester. And then we'll move this whole program down Dorchester Ave.

"My sense is that by gaining that momentum in the northern part of Dorchester - in what I think is considered a more diverse part than the southern part of Dorchester - and let the people realize how committed we are to the program."

"Nobody's going to push anybody around in this process," added Fish. "This is all going to be a win-win situation for everybody and to the extent that people don't think it's a win-win situation, we need their feedback to understand why.

"There's no doubt in my mind that once we pour these types of funds into the buildings, coupled with improving the quality of the curriculum, improving the training of the faculty and having some consistency in how the curriculum is developed, we firmly believe that when we build it, the students are going to come."

LINKS TO EARLIER STORIES ON THE 2010 INITIATIVE Archdiocese unveils new regional K-8 school system 12.6.07 St. Peter's parents weigh prospects of school closing 11.21.07 St. Brendan's opts out of 2010 school initiative11.1.07 Parents weigh Catholic schools fate in meetings 10.25.07 Publisher's Note: An apology to Saint Mark's parishioners & an explanation on our role in covering this story 10.25.07 Editorial: Tough decisions need to be made, bring great anxiety 10.25.07 Catholic church briefs parents on regional school plan 6.14.07 Church promises to "slow down" school consolidation process 2.21.07 Editorial: We Stand By Our Story 2.22.07 Archdiocese eyes closure of four Catholic grammar schools 2.14.07

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