St. Joe looks to what's next
Catholic school preparing students for life after closing
Given that just five months appear to remain for St. Joseph Central High School, old events are taking on new meaning.
The school's annual April gala at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Pittsfield will become a farewell celebration, mainly for alumni. Normally, its goal is to raise money for the school.
"It's going to be more or a party for people who want to get together," said Principal Amy R. Gelinas.
An event in May will also gather alumni, this time to the school gym for a kind of prom. "They wanted to have an old-fashioned dance and get-together," Gelinas said.
Meanwhile, events for students will also be adjusted. Jessica Maguire, the school's guidance counselor, said customary "spirit week" celebrations will be tweaked to note the significance of this final year.
She is also proposing to display boards carrying the names of staff members and will invite students to inscribe them with memories.
Mark Dupont, the diocesan spokesman, said officials in Springfield will not intervene to orchestrate final ceremonies.
"As for any memorial tribute event, those would be planned locally in Pittsfield by the St. Joe's leadership team," he said.
PITTSFIELD — Robert Paterson to the principal's office.
That was the echoing intercom call Friday afternoon. Paterson, a slim, athletic teen wearing a tie and v-neck sweater, got his stuff together. He rounded a corner by a marble statue of St. Joseph, ready to meet his future.
Paterson was off to visit the Darrow School in New Lebanon, N.Y., one of institutions he might attend next year because his own, St. Joseph Central High School in Pittsfield, is being closed by the Springfield diocese.
After his trip to Darrow, Paterson had to hurry back for a boys varsity home basketball game against Lee.
That's the Lee Middle and High School — another educational home Paterson is considering for next year. On the court, he faced players who might become teammates.
"It's move-on time," said Paterson, a junior. "It's not emotion any more. It's reality.
Normally, only seniors at a high school must plan what comes next.
But all grade levels at St. Joe's are in the hunt this year, following news in October that because of low enrollment and operating deficits, June 12 will be the school's final day of classes after 119 years of operation.
Today, a recently hired guidance counselor is filling spreadsheets with details for all of the school's 64 students, not just its 18 seniors, and tapping into her experience as an adjustment counselor.
Principal Amy R. Gelinas is preparing to empty the 22 Maplewood Ave. building by June, even as she tries to shield students and staff from any sense their school is being dismantled before their eyes.
And plans for routine yearly events are being transformed into final celebrations of St. Joe's presence in Pittsfield.
Members of a group called St. Joe Strong pressed for the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski to reverse his Oct. 13 order to close the school. After the bishop declined, they appealed the closing to the Vatican and are waiting for a response. It is expected this spring.
The diocese said the decision to close was triggered in part by the loss of international students. Their higher tuitions have helped close a deficit that amounted to $4.5 million over five years. Enrollment had fallen to 68 this year, mirroring declines in Catholic education.
Parochial school enrollment has been steadily falling across the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Enrollment nationwide fell from 1.2 million in the 2003-04 school year to 740,000 a decade later — for a 35 percent drop, the center reports.
A spokesman for the diocese also cited high costs of maintaining St. Joe's as a factor in the decision to shutter the school, along with the fact that three feeder schools enrolled just 38 eighth-graders this year, not enough for what he termed "a robust secondary program."
At St. Joe's, preparations for the closing are accelerating — both to help young people anxious about the closing and to deal with decades of accumulated equipment and religious objects.
Volunteer staffer Michael Nichols sat Friday in an office off the lobby going over lists of goods the school never had to inventory before.
One page showed thumbnail photos of desks on one column, sacred objects on another. Nichols was researching possible prices to ask.
"We have Mary in every room, and a crucifix in every room. We want everything to go to use," said Nichols, a former banker and 1969 graduate.
Gelinas, the principal, said she felt called to help students not just weather this transition, but learn from it.
"Trying to have them looking beyond this event, because life happens," she said. "Of course it's nerve-wracking."
Gelinas started at a disadvantage, having recently lost the school's guidance counselor. When Gelinas called a candidate to offer her the job, it came with the warning that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield planned to close St. Joe's.
That didn't discourage Jessica Maguire, who took on the assignment to help shape special counseling sessions for St. Joe's students. The theme became "resilience," bringing a new goal into the school's curriculum.
Since an all-school meeting, the special counseling has moved on to specific classes, where it starts with a request that students look inward at what they need, and what might be best for them, Maguire said.
"It's scary. The transition at any level is scary. It's not just seniors worrying about the next transition," Maguire said.
She's been joined in the project by Meghan Blauvelt, an English Language Learners teacher who works closely with the school's 17 international students.
After addressing anxieties, Maguire said she's worked to focus on what's to come, by asking St. Joe's students to think about what kind of new school would work best for them.
By stressing practical solutions — and action — her goal has been to foster a sense of a shared challenge.
One that can be mastered together.
"We're here to foster that growth. I wanted to shift the focus to skills they'd be able to take forward," Maguire said. "So we can start cementing a path — where am I going and how can I get there?"
While some students remain upset, others are showing more acceptance, she said.
"There are just all different levels of it," she said.
Gelinas said the change may prove toughest for life-long parochial school students who've never experienced public education.
One challenge they face is passing three MCAS or PARCC tests before graduation; as a Catholic school, St. Joe's did not administer the tests, but they are required of all public school graduates in Massachusetts.
"There's a little pressure on them that way," Gelinas said.
The school is convening special MCAS study sessions later this month. Students are already signing up. The math portion will be led by teacher Sarah Brooks.
Gelinas said public and private school educators in the region have stepped up to help St. Joe's students grapple with decisions they face. "They understand on a gut level what's happening with these kids, especially the juniors," she said.
In all, St. Joe's students have visited 11 schools in the region and one in Albany. A bus took seven students to St. Mary's in Westfield, which is also part of the Springfield diocesan system. But Gelinas said the distance and other factors, like having to extend the day far from home for sports, discouraged all of them. "It was just more than our kids were interested in."
Wahconah joined several schools in coming to St. Joe's to make pitches to enroll. Taconic High School escorted a small group on a tour of its facility on Valentine Road in Pittsfield.
One current student plans to attend Mount Everett High School in Sheffield, and has a parent willing to make a drive of over an hour each way.
Paterson, the junior who visited the Darrow School, said he is drawn to Lee in part because educators there already have backed his desire to take classes at Berkshire Community College in what's known as dual enrollment.
He applied for school choice to Lee and was accepted. He likes that the senior class will be about 60 students. "It's small, like St. Joe. They're open to what I want to do."
Paterson said his grades suffered after getting the news of the closing. "It's been rough," he said, but he's now resigned to the change. "It's set in."
His mother, Dawn, listening in Friday, underscored the impact. "It was really hard for Robert, being a junior and having his school close."
Gelinas said that since the announcement in October, the school lost four students, only one because of the closing itself. Staff have been holding steady, or increasing. Gelinas just hired a new religion teacher for a five-month position.
Though she's under deadlines to close out operations, Gelinas said she's tried to minimize obvious changes out of respect for students and teachers. "We're trying to make this as normal a year as possible. That's what they paid for and what they deserve."
But the impact is clear.
"It's overwhelming as a family to figure out how we do this," she said. "It's a death. It's a death for the community. Now we're getting to the acceptance stage. How do you celebrate the legacy and keep the legacy alive?"
Samantha El Saddik, a senior who next year will attend either Elms College in Chicopee or Assumption College in Worcester, paused in the main hall at St. Joe's to say she believed the resilience training has been useful.
"Just to kind of help prepare them," El Saddik said, speaking of fellow students. "I know a lot of them are still saddened by the closing."
She said she's noticed that St. Joe's juniors are intent on making this year's prom particularly memorable, in part because it will provide a lasting impression of their lives here.
"They are focused on making this year's prom one of the best ever, because they're not going to get the same senior year at another school," she said.
Jack Perenick, a ninth-grader from Dalton who attended St. Agnes in his home town, plans to attend Wahconah Regional High School next year.
Taking a break from a physical ed class unit on badminton in the gym, Perenick, 14, said he feels things will go well for him at Wahconah, but will miss St. Joe's small scale.
"Overall, I'm not too concerned about it," he said of the transition. "I just wish this wasn't closing. It's a nightmare that it's closing. It's a great place, mostly because it's family."
Teacher Kyle Kasala stood watching his students swat at badminton birdies.
"I think it's frustrating for a lot of the kids, to be honest," he said. "You get a lot of help here. Some are accepting. Some are still struggling with it. I think a lot of the kids will adjust — better than they think they will."
Like all members of the St. Joe's staff, this year will force a transition for him as well. Kasala, 23, is a Wahconah graduate who began work at St. Joe's last year. He may take an exam to include history as one of his teaching subjects, as he prepares to re-enter the job market.
"I'm kind of willing to take anything I can get," he said of his future job search. "Everything's a learning experience. This was a great start for me. I'll have two years under my belt."
Clearing out St. Joe's will take months. And in Gelinas' view, that work must start now. She's encouraging teachers to begin to emptying their closets.
"Our Dumpster should be full every week," she said.
Gelinas has empaneled an "artifacts committee" that will recommend what to do with 120 years of accumulated belongings.
One of the most valuable artifacts is a marble altar that came from a former Jesuit prep school in Lenox that closed decades ago. It sits in a basement storage room with a heap of chairs and an assortment of religious objects.
Other valuable items include the whirlpool bath used by athletes and a 3-D printer. The St. Joe's piano will be given to a diocesan school.
St. Joe's also houses 60 years worth of school records that came its way after other parochial schools closed throughout Berkshire County.
One basement classroom is home to model airplanes once flown by an inactive aeronautics club. A project is underway to give the crafts to an independent club.
Another kind of presence can't be a gift. The school's science labs house chemicals that are considered hazardous waste. Gelinas is recruiting companies to take the materials away.
Some of the school library's holdings will be given to the Berkshire Athenaeum for its book sale. Others will be sold in the school's own sale, with the remainder shredded and recycled. Unwanted electronics equipment will also find its way to recyclers.
A nearly complete set of St. Joe's Crusaders yearbooks will be given to the Athenaeum.
And homes will be sought for the many athletic banners, photos and trophies that document the school's sporting history.
Those in particular pull at the heart of Michael Nichols, a 1969 St. Joe's graduate. He wants to get materials into the right hands.
"Where they are appreciated and mean something to the recipients," Nichols said.
When the banners come down from the gym, the school's history will start to recede, he fears.
"So the school's just going to disappear, and we don't want it to," he said. "One hundred and twenty years can't be forgotten that easily."
The marble statue of St. Joseph in the lobby just feet from his desk will likely be installed outside at the parish church next door.
First choice on the materials goes to Catholic schools and churches, Gelinas said, then nonprofits. Eventually, the public will be invited to visit the school.
The school may allow people to come during the April vacation and put stickers on objects they'd like to purchase.
"I'm trying to get all these pieces together without disrupting the day. But everything's got to go," Gelinas said.
Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the diocese, said it's policy not to discuss future use of church buildings, including schools, until after they close.
In the first floor nurses' office she shares with Melisssa Filippi, Lois Bessette warned a visitor Friday that the subject of the school closing still makes her emotional.
"The two of us just can't get motivated to start packing," she said. "We just can't believe this is going to happen."
Both Bessette and Filippi worked at St. Mark's when that parochial elementary school closed in 2014 in Pittsfield.
Bessette said she understands the financial pressures on St. Joe's, but nonetheless feels sorry for students who face another transition away from a Catholic education.
"And now they're thrown into the turmoil of trying to get into some place to finish what they started here," she said.
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.
Other items that may interest you