Pope Francis High School’s new head W. Paul Harrington Jr. sees job as a blessing

Head of school W. Paul Harrington Jr. visits the site of the new Pope Francis High School in East Forest Park in Springfield. (Carolyn Robbins | Special to The Republican)

SPRINGFIELD — W. Paul Harrington Jr., the new head of Pope Francis High School, considers himself a lucky man.

After nearly 20 years in Catholic education — most of that time spent in California — the Massachusetts native said landing the job as head of Pope Francis at a time when many Catholic schools are closing presents a rare challenge and a welcome opportunity.

“This is a dream job for someone like me,” Harrington said recently while surveying construction of a $54 million school at 99 Wendover Road. The building is slated to open in just over a year.

“To have the opportunity to grow a new Catholic school is an awesome opportunity for not just me, but for this community,” he said, adding that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield’s willingness to invest in the project is “a blessing.”

Harrington, 41, grew up in Holliston and received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Fairfield University. After graduation he moved to California, where he enrolled in a Catholic-sponsored teacher development program run by the Sisters of the Holy Child of Jesus, a women-run counterpart to the Jesuits.

The sisters’ program is similar to the private, nonprofit Teach for America model that aims to attract recent college graduates to teach in high-needs communities like South Central Los Angeles, Harrington said.

Working with middle-schoolers from low-income, Hispanic families was a cultural challenge, Harrington said. “For those families, paying tuition to send their children to a Catholic school was a big sacrifice,” he said.

Tuition at Pope Francis is $9,500 a year, but many students receive financial assistance.

Harrington, who lived in an old convent building with other teacher recruits making a two-year commitment to the program, worked in the classroom and also helped develop a successful soccer league.

“We had to play on black-tops, but it was great experience,” he said. “The kids had so much passion for the  game.”

Harrington stayed on in Los Angeles, earning his doctoral degree in educational administrative leadership from USC and then went on to spend eight years leading Bishop Garcia Diego High School in Santa Barbara.

The call for applicants to lead Pope Francis was irresistible. Harrington and his wife, California-born Wendy, parents of 4-year-old Grace, decided a move east was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.

“Two things motivated me,” he said: “the future of Catholic education and the challenge.”

For the last few weeks, while awaiting a move into a home in Longmeadow, Harrington has been commuting from Newport, Rhode Island, where his parents recently retired.

Construction of the new school, a state-of-the-art, green building in Springfield’s East Forest Park neighborhood, is about 30 percent complete. The site is the same as that of the former Cathedral High School, which was destroyed in the 2011 tornado.

While the construction project occupies some of his time, Harrington is mostly busy preparing for start of classes at Pope Francis High School’s current home, the former Holyoke Catholic High School in Chicopee. That school merged with Cathedral to form Pope Francis in 2016.

Harrington said the controversy that swirled around the merger and the site of the new building has been largely replaced by a feeling of gratitude that a new Catholic high school is being built. His position as a relative outsider, with no ties to either of the two legacy schools, is an advantage, Harrington said.

“We’re looking forward,” he said. “My focus is Pope Francis.”

This year, the school will continue to provide a strong college preparatory curriculum for students — including Advanced Placement courses, honors courses and an International Baccalaureate program.

Non-Catholics are welcome to apply to Pope Francis, Harrington said, noting that faith-based values transcend denominations. Theology and religion courses will be required, but most of those courses will be of the type college students take, he said. For example, a course on comparative religions will be among the offerings.

Harrington said he hopes excitement about the new school will build during this transition year. The design of the new three-story building includes many large windows and “window curtains” that will provide abundant natural light. From the third floor of the south side of the building, a view of downtown Springfield’s skyline is discernible. And to the east, Wilbraham mountains are visible.

Harrington said the design of the new building reflects his expansive vision for the  future.

“I don’t know of any other place in the U.S. that is doing what we’re doing,” he said.

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