The girls wear plaid jumpers and the boys are in identical clean white shirts. Motley rows of drawings and letters of the alphabet share space on a preschool classroom with a crÃ¨che, a crucifix and a morning prayer. At the top of the chalkboard, intertwined with streamers and balloons, is the phrase "Make a Joyful Noise," from Psalm 66.
If the decor evokes a Catholic parish school of 50 years ago, the classroom and the rest of what used to be St. Gregory's has gone through major changes along with four other schools in Dorchester and Mattapan following the closure of St. Peter's and St. Kevin's schools. Since last September, the remaining five have been operating as one regional Catholic school, Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy.
Though active parents describe some worries about their parish schools going into a regional organization, and some early discomfort over changes in curriculum, their initial impressions are favorable.
"If they didn't go in, my personal belief was we wouldn't have these Catholic schools. They would have folded," said Michael Hegarty, a father of two children at the Dorchester Central Campus, formerly St. Mark's.
One pressure for change came from local competition from charter schools and district public schools with growing popularity, such as the Richard J. Murphy K-8 School at the foot of Pope's Hill.
"While the Catholic schools stagnated, these other schools started to thrive, and parents cued in on that," said Phillip J. Carver, father of two children at the Neponset Campus, formerly St. Ann's.
And when it came time to pick a regional director of the Academy, the choice was the Murphy's principal, Mary L. Russo, who was singled out by a peer group as Principal of the Year for Massachusetts in 2004. She also worked on education reform in the Boston schools as Director of the Governing Board for the Annenberg Challenge grant program.
A pioneering champion of standards-based learning and extended-day programs, Russo has been acclaimed for boosting academic achievement at the Murphy and at the Samuel W. Mason School in Roxbury. When she introduced a new math curriculum at the Murphy, she developed new teaching strategies with the aim of raising achievement for all students. Within seven years, test scores in math improved dramatically.
While Russo describes the efforts of pastors to help teachers work Catholic values into their instruction, Carver describes a growing distance between leaders of the Archdiocese and services at the neighborhood level - following a shift in Catholic population and central offices south of Boston.
"The thing I did learn from this is that there has been a separation of the Archdiocese and these schools," said Carver. "The Archdiocese has moved to Braintree - if you know what I mean. These schools are a separate entity completely."
When parents describe Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, they speak mostly about their experiences with teachers and comparisons with other schools.
Margela Olivier-Galette had sent two of her children to Boston Public Schools before enrolling them at the Academy's Lower Mills Campus. When her son, Junior Reginald Galette, was having trouble at one of the public schools, she said the response from the principal took too long.
"It was hard for me to get to the principal and hard for me to get somebody involved in his life, as far as what he needed," said Olivier-Galette.
But when a test showed her daughter Regina was behind in reading after starting grade one at the Lower Mills Campus, Olivier-Galette was contacted by the school about tutoring.
"I feel like at John Paul people are paying attention to the progress of your kid - or the lack of," she said.
A Dorchester resident and member of the parent-teacher organization, Olivier-Galette currently has three children at the Lower Mills Campus but would like to enroll all five of her children. She says Catholic schools are "more nurturing."
"They are getting tutoring," she said. "They have an open-door policy, so I can drop by and talk about whatever issues I have."
A native of Haiti, Olivier-Galette had attended private schools before coming to the United States at age 21. She credits the Academy with "amazing progress" in her daughter's reading
Hegarty grew up in Dorchester and attended St. Mark's School, but he said he had seen public schools while doing inspections for the Boston Fire Dept.
"I see how out of control the public schools are," he said, "and I wanted more of the discipline."
But Hegarty also describes an "easy-going" approach to racial diversity at the Dorchester Central Campus, where he says most families also belong to St. Mark's Parish.
Parents who attended Catholic schools in Dorchester say the campuses at the Academy still have the feel of a parish, even if partly because the long decline in the ranks of teachers from religious orders has required more involvement by families.
Carver counts three generations in his family and more than 90 relatives who have attended St. Ann's. His wife, Pamela, helps out at the Neponset Campus as a lunch monitor. Carver serves on a parent-teacher council and he sees many of the students from the school when he coaches little league baseball. He also keeps a photograph of the school on a shelf in his office at UMass-Boston. The photo predates the renovations before its opening last September as the Neponset Campus.
"It still has the small school, parish school fell," said Carver.
"That's the beauty of these parochial schools," he added. "The parental involvement is huge."
As a director of five campuses, Russo talks about the challenge of trying to close achievement gaps between individual schools, but also the advantages of connecting those schools through a regional organization.
One advantage she mentions is in professional development, which she says has partially relied on outside training. Russo says the aim for the future is to have "less of a need for outside resources because the knowledge base has been developed in teachers."
By simultaneously redeveloping curriculum and teaching practices at all five campuses, Russo is trying to rework the old parish school model, in which she says approaches to learning had been "widely varied."
"What we're after is consistency, not conformity," she said.
In her own experience as a leader in reform through professional development, Russo has spoken about overlapping the roles of student, parent, teacher, and administrator.
"The whole idea," she says, "is that everybody's a learner in this environment - the adults, not just the children."
Under the regional model, the Campaign for Catholic Schools forms the central organization to pursue grants. Among those received so far are grants for math and literacy, and $15 million for the Academy and the St Peter's Teen Center from the Yawkey Foundation. The most recently announced grant was $100,000 for professional development from The Boston Foundation. The purpose of the grant is to improve student performance by increasing the leadership capacity of teachers.
The campaign hopes to raise $70 million exclusively for programs and capital projects at the Academy and the St. Peter's Teen Center. As of the beginning of this year, the campaign had raised more than $47 million.
Russo says regionalization can even improve family involvement. As an example, she cites workshops in the new math curriculum offered to parents before and after school and on Saturdays.
"An individual campus might not have been able to implement it because there's a person-power issue," Russo explained. "But, in a regional campus, you can implement it."
The regional school also represents an expansion, with more early education - starting now with pre-kindergarten - and after-class programs from 2:30 to 6 p.m. Along with tutoring and homework help, the programs include physical education, arts and crafts, and a science club.
"It's a longer school day," said Russo, "which we needed to be competitive with public schools."
A member of the parent-teacher organization and lunch monitor at the Dorchester Central Campus, Hegarty says his first reaction to the academic changes was that there was too much all at once. He says there has since been "fine-tuning."
"Now," he says, "we're moving forward, rather than being at a standstill."
And Carver supports having students give more attention to math and science.
"The more competitive you are in education, the better they're going to be," he said, "because the more difficult these schools are for these kids, the better they're going to be."
Russo calls the Academy and "exercise in hope" and points to a goal beyond Dorchester and Mattapan.
"We are the only school learning how to do this in the inner-city at a time of a terrible economy," she says, "but if we succeed, we will be a model for other schools in the Archdiocese."
Carver also looks beyond the five campuses. With standard tuition for each child at $3,400 a year, he says parents already feel pressure to have their children leave Catholic elementary schools before grade eight for public exam schools and charter schools. Recently added to the competition was an expansion to grades 7 and 8 by Boston College High School. Carver expects even more competition from other Catholic high schools, and he says that could be "detrimental" to seventh and eighth grades options at Catholic elementary schools in Boston.
"If you start limiting the options, the educational options for families in the city" he argued, "they're going to leave."
In recent decades, Boston has also lost a number of Catholic high schools, while the remaining options, such as B.C. High and Catholic Memorial, draw much of their enrollment from outside the city. Carver says the time may have arrived for a new, relatively affordable Catholic high school in Boston that would increase options for city residents.
"I think a Catholic high school in the City of Boston, if done correctly, would succeed," he said, "and succeed a lot better than they'd think."