New Pope Francis head sees challenges, ‘but the opportunities are incredible’

4/6/2017 | Chris Maza
chrism@thereminder.com

As he approaches his position as the new head of school for Pope Francis High School, Dr. W. Paul Harrington Jr. said he sees plenty of hurdles, but also plenty of potential.

“There are certainly some significant challenges, but the opportunities are incredible.”

Harrington was selected to lead the school after a nationwide search assisted by Partners in Mission School Leadership Search Solutions. He was most recently the head of school for the Bishop Garcia Diego High School in California.

A native of Holliston, he said the area was an important part of his decision when contemplating where to put down roots with his young family and the opportunity to help build an educational and social environment in a new school building by combining the cultures of its predecessors, Cathedral High School and Holyoke Catholic High School, was an exciting proposition.

“When it comes down to it, what is happening here with two legacy schools melding into one is not unusual when you look at the landscape of Catholic education in this country,” he said. “But to rename the school in the name of Pope Francis is quite special and the fact that they are building a brand new facility is really a testament to the commitment to Catholic education in Western Massachusetts.”

According to the diocese, the installation of structural steel for the new 127,000-square-foot school building on the site of the former Cathedral High School in Surrey Road in Springfield will be completed this spring.

Harrington said in addition to officials and members of the search committee, he had the opportunity to meet with some parents and students during the hiring process and was heartened by the level of support.

“The excitement I saw in them suggested to me this is really something they are proud of,” he said.

While he has not been part of the kind of merger that has taken place with the formation of Pope Francis, Harrington noted has experience with what he called “leadership change management.”

The biggest key to a smooth transition and unlocking the potential he sees in the school, he said, is communication.

“Any change in leadership presents challenges and here you’re looking at a situation where you have a new head of school and a new campus and overall a complete organizational shift,” he said. “My goal is to involve as many people as possible in conversations as decisions are made.”

Harrington he does not officially take the position until July 1, but he said he would be in the area working with Interim Head of School Dr. Thomas Y. McDowell and meeting with stakeholders starting this month.

“I understand that there are people who still identify with one of our legacy schools or another and there are some who have strong feelings about what’s going on. I hope with continued dialogue and conversations, people will come to understand what we’re doing here and enjoy it,” he said. “That is one of the biggest challenges we face and in the next 18 months, we’ll have a long way to go.”

Describing himself as “more of an outside the office head of school,” Harrington said he would be “as available to the public as possible. He said he plans to conduct small group discussions and when the new school building was completed, the public would be invited to experience it firsthand.

“Once the new campus is open, I would welcome people to come see it, tour it and experience it in action,” he said. “Our goal is to immerse people in Pope Francis High School so they can gain a deeper appreciation for the work we do.”

While giving those associated with the diocese and the legacy schools an opportunity to embrace the new school, he also hoped the message would have a broader reach.

“My hope is in five years other schools are calling us and asking us how we did this,” he said. “I hope that we can be a model for that kind of shift.”

As Catholic schools face dips in enrollment across the country, Harrington said the message to families – Catholic and otherwise – must focus on the quality of the education received at schools like Pope Francis.

“The values instilled at Catholic schools and the things that Catholic schools thrive on are things that I think are appreciated and valued by everyone,” he said. “There is a tremendous spectrum of programs at Pope Francis that many schools just can’t compete with. We are producing scholars and sending them to the best colleges in the country.”

Embracing innovation while maintaining core values, he added, is a major piece of the puzzle in maintaining high academic standards.

“Obviously when people think innovation, they think of technology and keeping current on teaching trends. One thing I spoke a lot about during the interview process is the fact this is a school with deep roots and we want to make sure to honor traditional educational concepts, but to advance, it comes down to innovation.”

In addition to technology and keeping current on teaching trends, he said innovation can also include exploring creative uses of space and taking advantage of cooperative learning opportunities.

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