Looking to grow, Cambridge school eyes St. William's

In a hunt for a newer and larger facility, officials with a Cambridge Catholic high school are looking closely at the former St. William’s School in Savin Hill.

The president of the private North Cambridge Catholic High School, part of a national network of 22 schools in 19 urban cities called Cristo Rey, has spent the last several weeks meeting with local residents, elected officials, and community members, laying the groundwork for the 265-student school to potentially open next fall in Dorchester and eventually expand to 400 students.

The parish that owns the St. William’s property, a parochial school in Savin Hill that was combined with St. Margaret’s into one grammar school called Blessed Mother Teresa during the consolidation of Dorchester parishes, is currently weighing the proposal. St. William’s has largely been used as a storage facility since the reconfiguration, according to neighbors.

A number of forums on the proposal are planned this month. School officials plan a Sept. 14 presentation for the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association. Parishioners will get a chance to weigh in on the proposal on Sept. 17 at Blessed Mother Teresa. Current parents of children at the Cambridge high school will get their own chance at a forum on Sept. 16 at the high school, located at 40 Norris St.

“I understand how important it is to be sensitive to the needs of the neighborhood,” said Jeff Thielman, the president of the high school. “We’re not going to do anything that would harm the neighborhood. We really want to be a part of the wonderful community that is Dorchester.”

Thielman said his school’s current location is limiting and the nearest MBTA station is Davis Square. St. William’s School would allow for twice as many classrooms and, with its proximity to the Savin Hill MBTA station, will reduce the commute for 70 percent of their students, many of whom hail from Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, he said.

“We’ve been saying, ‘Look the majority of our students are from Dorchester,’ ” Thielman said.

In an Aug. 28 letter to parents, Thielman called Savin Hill a “safe and up-and-coming Boston neighborhood,” but noted the decision on the site was “not yet final.”

Thielman said he hopes to that by selling the 40 Norris St. location, which is owned by the Boston archdiocese, they will have enough money to buy the St. William’s property. Along with fundraising money, they would use the funds from the sale to make repairs to the property as well.

A spokesman for the archdiocese did not return a phone call seeking comment, but the archdiocese would likely pick the new name of the high school, Thielman said.

Along with other school officials, Theilman met in mid-August with members of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association’s executive committee, which has greeted the proposal warmly, aside from the usual questions about parking and traffic.

Thomas O’Neill, son of the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, chairs the high school’s board of trustees and attended a recent meeting of the Tuttle/Hartland St. neighborhood watch. O’Neill, a former lieutenant governor who runs the lobbying and public relations firm O’Neill and Associates, is also a 1962 alumnus of the high school. Another school board member, Dr. Mary Grassa O’Neill, is the secretary of education for the archdiocese and a graduate of St. Ann’s Grammar School in Dorchester.

“I would say it’s a given,” said Joe Chaisson, a longtime Savin Hill resident who was baptized at St. William’s Church. “They’ve looked around and it’s their first choice.”

Chaisson said most residents prefer having a school there to condominiums, as has been rumored. “I think that’s the general feeling of the neighborhood,” he said.

Maureen McQuillen, president of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, said school officials are doing a “good job” of canvassing the neighborhood on the proposal. “I would say it looks like a positive addition to the neighborhood and an appropriate use of the building,” she said.

Added Deirdre Habershaw, a member of the association’s executive committee and a former president: “I would rather see a school there than a storage facility, which is what it is now. I was very impressed with the presentation.”

Local residents in particular highlighted the school’s work-study program, which places students at 70 greater Boston companies. Nearly 100 percent of graduates go onto college.

“We’re able to bring a model of education that’s very rigorous,” Thielman said. “We’re going to bring this model into the city. We’re going to be able to serve more people from the city of Boston.”
Work-study students are placed at banks, law firms, and insurance companies, where they will work for some of the week, Thielman said. “We’ll never have more than 300 students in our building at one time,” he said.