By Dave Jolivet, Anchor Editor
FALL RIVER, Mass. — The Back-to-School commercials began at the tail end of July. For some, back-to-school shopping includes the purchase of new shoes, shirts, blouses, pants, dresses, back-packs and supplies.
For various schools in the Diocese of Fall River’s parochial school system it includes the addition of four new modular classrooms, enhanced curriculums, new staff members, increases in enrollment, infrastructure renovations, and an increase in student activities.
In a recent interview with The Anchor, diocesan school superintendent Dr. Michael S. Griffin and assistant superintendent for personnel Louise P. Kane, each expressed excitement and great optimism for the nearly two dozen diocesan elementary, middle and high schools stretching from Cape Cod to the Attleboros and all points in between.
“Our schools are growing, evidenced by classroom additions, renovations and increases in enrollment in places,” Griffin told The Anchor. “We’re blessed with good leadership and strong faith-filled curriculums for our students. And we’re looking forward to what dimensions our new Bishop Edgar da Cunha will bring in the future.”
“Some of the changes we’ve made, like the merging of the middle and high schools in Hyannis and Taunton, are providing for a seamless transition for the students from one level to the next,” added Kane. “At one time the transition from middle school to high school was difficult for some students. But these mergers will ease the students from one stage to the next. That’s a very positive result.”
The combining of the schools in these two areas are indeed the most noticeable changes and Griffin and Kane concurred that they study the positives and work to eliminate the negatives.
But those are far from the only “Back-to-School” changes happening across the diocese.
Another high profile change took place last week at St. Mary’s-Sacred Heart School in North Attleboro, where four modular classrooms were delivered and assembled, adding more space for the middle-school students. “This has been a very busy place this summer,” principal Denise Peixoto told The Anchor. “All in one week we had the delivery of the modular classrooms, the lawn in front of the school was being landscaped to include a playground area for the students, and the city was tearing up the street to repave it later. There’s a lot going on.”
In addition, the North Attleboro school, which is one that has seen an increase in enrollment, is expanding its cafeteria to make room for the additional students.
Other diocesan schools experiencing an expansion are St. Mary’s in Mansfield which is adding a pre-school for the first time; St. John the Evangelist in Attleboro is expanding its kindergarten program from one to two classes; Our Lady of Lourdes in Taunton is adding a new pre-kindergarten program for three-year-olds; and All Saints Catholic School in New Bedford has created separate classes for its three-year-old and four-year-old students.
Last year’s expansion at Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth into the former Family Life Center was indeed timely. The school has seen an increase in enrollment, particularly in its freshman class.
“We’re seeing an increase in the number of students entering our younger grades,” said Griffin, “and that is a promising sign. Many parents of these students find what they’re looking for for their children and choose to keep them in the schools past the younger grades.”
“As a former teacher at Espirito Santo School in Fall River, I found that the three-year-old and four-year-old programs served as a feeder program for our school,” said Kane.
Safe, modern facilities and strong curriculums are important factors for the diocesan schools, but those not the most important elements. Developing and maintaining a strong faith development foundation in all the schools is a primary objective.
With that objective in mind, Griffin told The Anchor that all diocesan school faculties will be participating in a development program based on Father Robert Barron’s acclaimed “Catholicism” series. “The pilot for this began with the New Bedford schools last year, where they gathered together to watch and discuss the series,” said Griffin. “Now all our diocesan schools will be taking part; some in groups where they can discuss and share with other faculties, and others on their own for a more intimate setting. In any event, our teachers will be watching the series, discussing it, and listening to guest speakers. This way our teachers will enhance their own knowledge of our faith and will be better prepared to share that faith, and discuss aspects of the faith and moral issues with their students.”
Other faith-related programs at area schools include a unique “Holy-Wood” program at Holy Family-Holy Name School in New Bedford. The school chose its 2014-15 theme from Daniel 12:3, “Shine like the stars in the heavens.”
During the first week of school, each student at Holy Family-Holy Name will be commissioned into the “Holy-Wood Stars of Fame,” whereby each student will be called to do their best for Jesus. Each day will include “Stars of the day, who will it be?” Those selected students and faculty will be prayed for and honored with a special certificate.
Holy Name School in Fall River will include in its Religion curriculum a program called, “Theology of the Body — Middle School Edition,” by parish director of Adult and Youth Faith Formation and Youth Ministry Gregory Bettencourt. The purpose is to help address various social issues which middle school-age students may face. Additionally, the school’s reading curriculum will be expanded to include some classic Christian literature.
St. Stanislaus School, also in Fall River is including in its curriculum a study of Catholic culture and heritage called, “Sharing the Treasures of Our Faith.”
Students from Our Lady of Lourdes School in Taunton will be traveling to Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston on October 3 to join other Catholic schools in other dioceses for a Children’s Eucharistic Holy Hour.
In terms of academics, this year’s diocesan Professional Development Day for Catholic School Teachers and Administrators will take place October 20, entitled “Teaching 21st-Century Learners in Our Catholic Schools.” The presenter will be Dr. Claire Kilbane, an associate professor at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.
For the last 10 years Kilbane has consulted with Catholic schools on projects relating to 21st-century learning topics such as: critical thinking, problem-solving, differentiated instruction, digital portfolios, and differentiated instruction. The event, to be held at White’s of Westport, is sponsored by Sadlier, Inc.
Other noted changes this year include Bishop Connolly High School in Fall River introducing a holistic humanities curriculum this fall whereby “an academic environment in which students will be challenged to understand every individual achievement is incomplete unless it involves the advancement of the entire community.”
The school has also created a new Peer Ministry program comprised of students who have been defined as strong Spiritual leaders who exhibit a consistent practice of prayer and who put their faith into daily action, and adult members of the Service and Leadership Team. The individuals will work together to meet the Spiritual needs of the student body through participation in Sacramental life, increased catechesis and other social justice initiatives and retreat programming.
Connolly will again welcome visiting students from China. Joining them will be Pope John Paul II High School in Hyannis, which will welcome four students from China this fall. The school, which has teamed with St. Francis Xavier Preparatory School, will be offering Mandarin Chinese for students in grades six through 12.
“I am greatly impressed by the courage and initiative taken by Chinese students and families who will be studying at Pope John Paul II High School,” said principal Christopher Keavy. “Not only am I confident that they will receive an excellent education, but they will bring benefit to our American students.”
Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth, whose new academic year slogan is “Come follow Me” (Mt 4:19), will utilize a new website and marketing campaign, and beginning with the Class of 2018, math will be mandatory in all four years to better prepare students for the rigors of college.
Coyle and Cassidy High School and Taunton Catholic Middle School combined to create Coyle and Cassidy High School and Middle School Division, which will provide students in grades six through 12 a college preparatory education.
Extensive renovations took place this summer in anticipation of the change.
“We are thrilled with the establishment of this new entity that will allow us to maintain the integrity of the middle school and high school experiences while preparing students of a younger age for the rigors of a college preparatory eduction,” said school president Dr. Mary Pat Tranter. Longtime Coyle and Cassidy High School teacher Kathleen St. Laurent is the new principal. St. Laurent has also been very active in the diocese in the Pro-Life movement and educating voters on the perils of physician-assisted suicide.
Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro also welcomes a new principal this year, Sean Kane; as does St. Joseph’s School in Fairhaven with Faith Piazza as the new principal; and St. Mary’s School in Mansfield, which will welcome former diocesan assistant superintendent for personnel, Kathleen Simpson, who will take over as interim principal and will be involved in securing a permanent principal at the school in the future.
All Saints School in New Bedford will welcome new assistant principal Matthew Bourque.
St. Margaret’s School in Buzzards Bay will continue its fine academic curriculum and plans on further developing the use of modern technology in the classrooms with the purchase of Chromebooks and adding an extra class per week devoted to learning Web 2.0 learning tools. In addition, the school is further developing its drama, fine arts and children’s choir programs.
St. James-St. John School in New Bedford will introduce a redesigned Portuguese class and a new photography and sports club.
Espirito Santo School in Fall River has improved and updated its computer lab and will introduce a new music program allowing students the opportunity to learn to play an instrument.
A number of new teachers have also joined the diocesan school system team, and they gathered on August 20 at Bishop Connolly High School for an orientation day.
Many diocesan schools have tweaked their curriculums, enhancing the learning experience for their students in various ways.
And it’s not all academics and Faith Formation. Many schools have added or enhanced their sports and extracurricular activities for the coming year.
“Many good things are happening this year,” said Griffin. “We’re very excited.”
Kane added that many pastors and parochial vicars at parishes with schools have become very involved with the students. “We have good cooperation with our priests,” she said. “Our principals work very hard to establish a working bond with them. The priests are so well-received by the students.”
“Many of the priests in our diocese enjoy the Spiritual dimension and connection with the students,” added Griffin. “Having and active priest is important for the life of the school, for the kids and for the parish,” said Kane.