“Stand right here,” commanded Claire Barton Sheridan, the principal of the Columbia campus of the Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, to a class of second graders during a walk-through of the dismissal formation Sept. 8, the first day of classes. The students are not allowed to leave their formation until they are dismissed by their teacher, Sheridan said. Pilot photo/ Neil W. McCabe
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A new chapter in the history of Boston’s Catholic Schools began Sept. 8 as 1,500 students settled into their seats at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy’s five campuses in Dorchester and Mattapan.
“I am very enthusiastic, very encouraged. This is a great day for the Catholic Church in Dorchester and Mattapan,” said Father Paul R. Soper, the pastor of Blessed Mother Teresa Parish, the site of the Columbia campus, which is the former site of St. Margaret School in Dorchester.
The Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy is the merger of seven parish schools that reopened on five campuses. They are, in addition to the Columbia campus: Neponset campus, formerly the school of St. Ann Parish; Lower Mills campus, formerly the school of St. Gregory Parish; Mattapan Square campus, formerly the school of St. Agatha Parish, and Dorchester Central campus, formerly the school of St. Mark Parish.
The academy is part of the archdiocese’s 2010 Initiative to revitalize its Catholic Schools, said Father Thomas S. Foley, who is the episcopal vicar and the cardinal’s secretary for parish life and leadership. The planning for the academy began in 2005, when Father Foley was the pastor of St. Ann Parish and the leader of the vicariate that includes Dorchester and Mattapan.
The enrollment in the academy has roughly 200 students more than last year’s combined enrollment of the seven schools, he said.
Carlos A. Alves said the enrollment of his two daughters, who are eight and four, in the academy is their first time in Catholic schools. “I want them to get the best education possible and Catholic education is the best.”
“This is terrific to see the new school and the new teachers,” said Ahn M. Chernicki, who dropped off her eight-year-old daughter, Angela, at the Columbia campus. Angela was previously a student at St. Margaret Parish School.
“Opening Day was smooth,” said the academy’s director, Mary L. Russo, who toured the five campuses on the first day. “The children are happy and excited about being in campuses that are new and clean. They are happy about having new textbooks and classrooms.”
“This last week and this summer has in so many ways been so focused on construction and cost lists and getting milk delivered and getting all the arrangements done. Today, we are able to focus on the purpose of it, when the kids show up,” Father Soper said.
“This focus reawakens our sense of purpose that this is what we are supposed to be doing.”
“We are looking forward to a great new year with some great new buildings, staff and programs,” said Bishop Robert F. Hennessey, the regional bishop of the Central Region, who stood with Father Soper as the students and parents arrived at the Columbia campus.
“It has been the coming together of a lot of work involved in the construction and work by the faculty and the pastors. We are very proud of them.”
“We had a lot of happy children and wonderful parents -- we had a great opening this morning,” said Maryanne Gately Martinelli, the principal of the Mattapan Square Campus.
Martinelli said she was thrilled at the condition of the building after the work that was done during the summer. “They have been in the building fixing things and the building has been repainted. We had so many wonderful workers these past weeks.”
In addition to the physical improvements, Martinelli said she was pleased with the improved curriculum, particularly the focus on literacy and participation with TERC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving math and science instruction.
Russo said she is glad a great number of high quality educational professionals are drawn to teach at the academy. “I think it is clearly mission-driven. People are here because they believe the mission and the work we are trying to do.”
Russo said when she looks back on this first year of the academy she has standards that she will use to measure its success. “I consider it a win if at the end of the school year, the parents can still say to us: ‘We trust you with our children. Our children are learning here with you and they are being formed in their Catholic faith.’ It is the combination of Catholic faith formation and academic achievement that are our two goals.”
At the May 5 groundbreaking ceremony for the academy’s construction program, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley had remarked, “The archdiocese is blessed by the contributions many people are making toward our efforts to strengthen and enhance Catholic education.”
The construction program, which is near completion, included new gymnasiums, science labs, heating plants and up-to-code electrical, mechanical, plumbing and sprinkler systems.
The cardinal also said, “Generations of families have been educated in Dorchester and Mattapan; our Catholic schools’ alumni are well-represented among leaders in education, government, business and many other professions. We look forward to educating future generations and helping to develop tomorrow’s leaders at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy.”
Community leaders have voiced their support of the new academy.
“I am really encouraged by the opening of the Pope John Paul II Academy,” said State Rep. Martin J. Walsh, D-Dorchester. “From everything I have read, from everything I have watched, this is going to be a very good thing for the kids. The kids should benefit from the state of the art curriculum and the state of the art facilities.”
Walsh said, “Because I am the product of Catholic education, I know it shaped who I am today and how important it is for the children to have those benefits.”
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he was happy the school opened succesfully.
“Under Cardinal O’Malley’s leadership, the archdiocese and the Dorchester and Mattapan communities have come together to make this project a success. The renovations at these five historic campuses will be a model for Catholic education in a neighborhood that has always identified with the mission of its strong Catholic Schools.”
The state’s secretary of education, S. Paul Reville, added his praise for the new academy: “I commend the Archdiocese of Boston for their vision and work to identify new solutions to better address the needs of the young people in the city of Boston. They have shown tremendous leadership and dedication to providing a high quality education to the students they serve. I look forward to future collaboration and discussion of how we can work together, public, private and parochial, to ensure all students in Massachusetts are achieving at high levels.”