Two South Boston schools to merge in the fall

The school boards of South Boston’s Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid schools announced Nov. 10 that both schools will close at the end of the school year and reopen as one regional school in fall.

Though the name of the new school has not been determined, it will utilize the building of the current St. Brigid School located on East Broadway, said Mary Grassa O’Neill, the archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools.

There is a meeting for parents at Gate of Heaven Church Nov. 19 at 7 p.m., O’Neill said. More details about the process will be discussed then.

In a statement released the same day of the announcement, the archdiocese said, “We are confident that this decision will greatly enhance our ability to strengthen and improve Catholic education in South Boston. It is the hope and prayer of the parishes of St. Brigid and Gate of Heaven that we can work together to provide a superior Catholic elementary school, building upon the strong history of our two parish communities.”

The statement also said Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley has accepted the recommendation, which was given to him by Father Robert E. Casey, who serves as the pastor of both parishes.

Prior to the Nov. 10 announcement, Father Casey reached out to all interested parties, O’Neill said.

“It has been a difficult process,” she added, “and it is natural for some people to prefer one site over another.”

The building at St. Brigid has a number of advantages over the Gate of Heaven site, such as a gymnasium for physical education and assemblies and the code-required restroom facilities on each floor, she said. The St. Brigid School is also 44 years younger that the Gate of Heaven School building.

It is estimated that the necessary renovations would cost 36 percent less at the St. Brigid site. When the new school opens in the fall, the St. Brigid School building will have two new classrooms, so that it will have the capacity to accommodate the combined student body.

This is the end of a process that began three years ago, confronting financial constraints, changing demographics and declining enrollments, said Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

To work out the details and the process, 18 months ago the school boards established a “collaborative board” with representation from both schools, parishes and the pastor.

The board worked cooperatively, meeting every month to plan a vision for the future, he said. Last year, it agreed that in order to provide quality and affordable Catholic education in South Boston, they needed to combine and become one school.

This information was presented to the parents of both schools and parishioners a number of times during the past six months, he said.

After he met with the faculty, Father Casey, along with O’Neill, met with City Councilor Michael F. Flatherty, State Rep. Brian P. Wallace, South Boston and a staffer from the office of Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D, whose district includes the South Boston, O’Neill said. “The officials at that meeting were very supportive and positive.”

O’Neill said former Boston mayor and ambassador to the Holy See, Raymond L. Flynn, who is a member of Gate of Heaven Parish has been consulted and expressed his support for the plan.

The outreach to the community and officials is designed to help everyone understand that this is the best way to proceed, given the challenging economic situation and the neighborhood’s 61 percent turnover in the last five years and the neighborhood’s expected 22 percent decline in the number of Catholic school-aged children in the next five years, O’Neill said.

“This is an opportunity for four big wins,” said William McKersie, the Acting Associate Superintendent for Academic Excellence.

First, the combination of staffs and resources in one place will make for a stronger and more efficient platform for academic excellence and faith formation.

Second, the new school will have both an improved governance model and the structure to preserve financial viability.

Third, this is an opportunity to upgrade and update the both the curriculum and the technology at the school.

Fourth, over time, there will be improvements to the facilities and plants at the one building.

McKersie said throughout the process people have become emotional, which is to be expected when dealing with something as personal as a school that has served families and a neighborhood for generations.

Making the decision now, gives families time to plan, said James Walsh, the associate superintendent for administration and finance.

In the coming months, there will be decisions made about how to establish the new school. Doing it now also gives the administration more time, he said.