Students from JP II making choices after closing of campus

With open houses being held throughout the area as part of Catholic Schools Week, families of students who have been attending the Pope John Paul II Academy’s Central school are busy selecting other academy campuses in Dorchester for opening day next fall.

They are reacting to the recent announcement that the central campus, located on the site of the former St. Mark’s Grammar School, will be closed in June due to insufficient enrollment and the poor economy.
Already, 81 percent of the 199 students who had been enrolled in the Central school have re-enrolled at one of the other four campuses in Dorchester, said Russ Wilson, regional director of the Pope John Paul II Academy. The four sites are in Lower Mills, Mattapan Square, Neponset, and Columbia Road.

“We are trying to make this as seamless a transition as possible,” Wilson said. “We are trying to avail ourselves to the parents and students at Dorchester Central.”

Next week, on Feb. 9, 10, 11, day-long field trips will be held for families from Dorchester Central to visit all of the other campuses. The trips will involve two grades at a time, and transportation will be by bus to each of the schools, Wilson said.

“They’ll see another campus, and students with the same uniforms and loving, caring teachers,” he added.

“Bittersweet” for the pastor

At a Mass last Sunday in St. Mark’s Church, the pastor, Father Dan Finn, said that for him and his parish it was a ‘bittersweet celebration’ of Catholic Schools Week.

“Since 1923 there has been a school on this campus,” Fr. Finn said. “The parents were disappointed because we had hoped the campus would be there for a long time. We knew that as a parish school it could not continue much longer.”

The expense of supporting a parish school is challenging for many parishes, Finn said while acknowledging that there is an emotional bond that parents, students, and the community have with the school.
“It came as a surprise in many ways,” he said. “I said during the Mass, ‘When God closes one door, he opens another; but it stinks in the corridor in between.’ “

While school officials acknowledge the loss, their vital measure is based on economics. “No one is discounting the emotion of Dorchester Central,” Wilson said. “But we are still accessible and affordable for all Dorchester students. In today’s educational market, we need to stay competitive. We need to be able to provide updated facilities, cutting edge curriculum. We need to be on the leading side of technology. And we want to remain accessible and affordable.”

The Dorchester Central campus employs 18 faculty and staff, according to Wilson who said the academy has identified four job openings throughout the system that current employees may apply for.

“There is no guarantee of new jobs within the system. But I will post any opening that I can identify or any opening that is newly created,” Wilson said. “I am looking at the [organizational] structure. I know I will have new opportunities next year. The Dorchester Central faculty will have the first opportunity.”

Loss will be felt

Certainly, the loss of the school will make a difference in the St. Mark’s neighborhood. Gone will be the noise from the kids in the playground and the monthly student Mass at St. Mark’s. “They have a great choir and many of the kids participated,” Finn said.
Various other community uses of the school building will continue. These include the English as a Second Language Program, which currently serves 100 adults and has a waiting list. Also there are religious education classes on Sunday morning and the Boy Scouts use the building for weekly meetings.

“The building is still ours and we will be looking for good uses for it,” said the pastor.

Academy seen “viable”

The remaining four academy campuses – are expected to meet the future in good shape. “With the early barometer reading – of 81 percent of students re-enrolled – the other four campuses will certainly be viable,” Wilson said.

Tuition for the academy for Grades K-8 will be $3,800 per student next year. The current cost to educate a student is $6,000, said Wilson. The deficit is covered through funds from the Catholic School Foundation and other generous donors, he added.

A ‘Save St. Mark’s’ effort

A Facebook group created last week to advocate for “saving” St. Mark’s School continued to attract new members in recent days. The group had 538 members as of yesterday. Many were alumni of the old parish school who expressed regret over the closing of the campus.