2010 Initiative breaks ground in Dorchester

DORCHESTER -- Four students set to attend Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy this fall broke ground May 5 on the project that will create a five-school system out of seven independent grammar schools in Dorchester and Mattapan. The symbolic ceremony took place outside the Columbia Campus of the academy, the former St. Margaret School adjacent to Blessed Mother Teresa Parish.

The Dorchester project is the second tackled by the 2010 Initiative, which seeks to revitalize Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Boston by the close of the decade.

At the groundbreaking, the students in hard hats enthusiastically represented their peers, shoveling dirt into the air and cheering loudly as improvements included in the school project were announced. On hand to witness the event were numerous Church and government officials including Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley as well as local business leaders instrumental in bringing the changes envisioned by the 2010 Initiative about.

Buildings will be refurbished with new windows, ceilings and lights. The schools will feature new classrooms, science labs, computers and gymnasiums. Changes to the curriculum will also be addressed, and the system will be realigned under a regional board and regional director.

At the press conference before the groundbreaking, guests toured a renovated classroom at the Columbia Campus. The building maintains its original hardwood floors with new lighting, windows and furniture. In the model classroom, an L-shaped teacher’s desk sits in the corner, a crucifix and American flag hang over the doorway and a photo of Pope John Paul II is placed over one of the classroom’s two giant magnetic marker boards.

“Pope John Paul II was a tireless supporter of Catholic education,” said Cardinal O’Malley.

The late pope, the academy’s namesake, believed that Catholic education is critical to the formation of the whole person -- intellectually, psychologically and spiritually, he added.

The cardinal rolled out the 2010 Initiative in 2005 to address the challenges primary schools in the archdiocese are facing.

The first 2010 Initiative project, Trinity Catholic Academy in Brockton, was completed last fall in just seven months, and three schools were combined into one school on two renovated campuses. A third project at St. Ann Elementary School in Gloucester was announced in February, and renovations at the 123-year-old school are anticipated for the summer of 2009.

“Cardinal Seán O’Malley is the man responsible for the renaissance of Catholic education in Boston,” said Jack Connors -- head of the newly-formed Campaign for Catholic Schools, which is charged with raising funds for 2010 projects.

Speaking at the press conference, Connors said the campaign has already raised $25 million toward its $68 million goal for Dorchester, and he predicted that the amount will reach $45 million by Labor Day.

Connors added that in the Archdiocese of Boston, the number of schools and enrollment have dropped dramatically. There are currently 99 schools in the archdiocese, down from 250 in 1960 and enrollment has decreased by 5 percent in each of the past five years, he said.

The schools in Dorchester and Mattapan have also struggled in recent years, facing declining enrollment and financial challenges. A committee, formed to discuss the 2010 plan in Dorchester and Mattapan, projected that no school would require more than 10 classrooms by 2011.

John Fish, president and CEO of Suffolk Construction, said the interest in the new academy has been “phenomenal.” So far 1,250 students are enrolled in the new John Paul II Academy, an increase of 250 over the enrollment in the separate Dorchester and Mattapan Catholic schools.

The 2010 plans in Dorchester, which call for the closing of three school buildings -- St. Peter’s, St. Kevin’s and St. William’s, were announced in December 2007. An eighth school, St. Brendan’s, chose to opt out of the regionalized school system but will still benefit from fundraising efforts.

All five campuses in the new school system -- located at former St. Angela, St. Ann, St. Gregory, St. Mark and St. Margaret Schools -- will offer pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Renovations at St. Margaret’s began in January, and the building, which is not currently in use, will open in the fall. St. Ann’s will be refurbished, reopening in September 2009, and students will be relocated to a different building during construction.

Though no longer used as a school, the Teen Center at St. Peter’s will remain open and also undergo improvements. Operated by Catholic Charities of Boston, the center will invest $4 million to add staff, upgrade facilities and provide transportation for teens.

The second stage of the project will introduce new programs for gifted students and those with learning difficulties. Improvements on St. Gregory, St. Angela and St. Mark school buildings will be completed by September 2010.

In addition, all current students are guaranteed places in the new school system, and every teacher and current staff member will have a priority opportunity to be hired in the new regional school.

Menino, who attended Catholic schools for 12 years during his youth, told the students at the press conference, “These are the days you will always cherish when it’s over.”

He termed Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy an “oasis” and called for the city to work together to provide quality education for its youth.