Work advances on $54.5M Pope Francis High School

Almost all of the roughly $55 million cost to build the new Pope Francis High School in Springfield comes from insurance and federal emergency disaster aid following the 2011 tornado that damaged the former Cathedral High School on the same site. (Larry Parnass, The Berkshire Eagle)

PHOTO GALLERY | Pope Francis High School construction

David Owen, gesturing at left, is project manager for the Pope Francis High School project. He works on behalf of the school’s owner, the Springfield diocese. (Larry Parnass, The Berkshire Eagle)

SPRINGFIELD — In the end, a damaging wind delivered an opportunity to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

The tornado that tore through southern Hampden County June 1, 2011, nearly destroyed Cathedral High School, on Springfield’s east side. The impact ruined the building, leaving its students and faculty with an uncertain future.

Nearly six years later, a new building is rising on the site. The $54.5 million project will house the newly constituted Pope Francis High School, an entity formed by the merger last year of Cathedral with Holyoke Catholic High School.

For Catholics across the sprawling Springfield diocese, high schools are rising — and falling.

A happy ceremony broke ground in Springfield last September, as an a cappella chorus sang “Halleluja.” A month later, the diocese announced it will shutter the St. Joseph Central High School in Pittsfield. The move will leave Berkshire County without a local option for Catholic secondary education.

Financially, it appears to have taken a disaster — and an influx of federal relief funds — to help the diocese start anew in Hampden County, even as it faces the same enrollment problems that beset St. Joe’s.

“The enrollment challenges we encountered in Pittsfield are also present here in the lower valley,” said Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the diocese. “The difference being the potential pool of students is greater here.”

In its heyday several decades ago, Cathedral hit an enrollment of 3,500. Following the merger of Cathedral and Holyoke Catholic, the new Pope Francis is home today to 371 students.

By comparison, St. Joe’s started this year with 68 students. A decade ago, it enrolled nearly 300 students, according to the diocese.

Cathedral faced enrollment problems before the tornado, Dupont said. “The devastation from that tragic event only made matters worse.”

Meantime, while Holyoke Catholic’s enrollment was more steady, it lacked a gym, theater and playing fields, Dupont notes.

“The circumstances seemed right to address both schools’ needs by building on each of their great academic traditions,” he said.

But it is unusual for a Catholic diocese to be able to afford an entirely new school, notes David Fontaine Jr., vice president at Fontaine Brothers Inc. of Springfield, the general contractor on the Pope Francis project. As Fontaine told the publication Construction Today in an April 4 story, “It’s rare that you see a diocese with the funds to build a brand-new state of the art facility.”

The new school is being paid for with more than $27 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, $22 million of insurance coverage and roughly $6 million in other funds, some expected from the eventual sale of the current temporary home of the Pope Francis High School in Chicopee.

One from two

As the new building rises, with all structural steel in place in the city’s East Forest Park neighborhood, a team continues to blend elements and traditions of the formerly separate schools.

“They both served with distinction,” said Jennifer Lopez, director of communications for Pope Francis. “The goal was to strengthen Catholic education as a whole.”

The Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski hired a retired public school superintendent, Paul Gagliarducci, to help fashion that new whole.

Gagliarducci, executive director of the Pope Francis High School Project, says that while he’s helped build schools before, this project is different.

“I’ve never built a school like this before. It’s pretty unique,” he said. “It captures a community aspect within the school.”

For one, the new school has virtually no hallways. Instead of a library, resources will be housed in a “learning commons,” with classrooms leading off that space.

“You get a sense that teachers won’t be confined by four walls,” Gagliarducci said. “Over time, this school will learn to use the dynamic approach to learning. There will be technology everywhere, where teachers and students can meet.”

One area on the second floor features a wide open set of tiered platforms, rising like steps above an area that can become a mini-theater. It has been dubbed the “community staircase.”

“We want the kids to feel like the building is theirs,” Gagliarducci said.

The cross built into the school’s facade will make clear its religious purpose. And inside, displays will carry forward the legacies of the two merged schools, along with testimony to what the school refers to as its “four pillars” — faith, academics, community and service.

The school is believed to be the only one in the U.S. so far to adopt the name of the current pope.

The message sent, said Lopez: “Why you’re here.”

Gagliarducci adds, “Religion will be a major focus within the school.”

At the same time, one key to Pope Francis’ success, given enrollment declines in parochial schools, may lie in its ability to attract non-Catholics.

Today, 20 to 25 percent of the school’s 371 students are from outside the Catholic tradition. Ten percent of the student body is drawn from abroad. China, Vietnam and the Czech Republic are all represented. Similarly, St. Joe’s had increased its enrollment of students from China.

“There is a real desire to continue that,” Gagliarducci said of non-Catholic enrollment. “We have to get people who want to send their kids there and spend money. We’re not free. I think we’re going to do well on that.”

Foreign students come for immersion in American life, language and culture. When that segment of St. Joe’s population fell last year, it accelerated the diocese’s decision to close in Pittsfield.

Gagliarducci said the school will seek to attract families interested in an alternative to public schools but put off by the pricetags of private ones.

The tuition for the 2017-18 year at Pope Francis is $9,500. Nearly 40 percent of current students receive need-based financial aid, according to Lopez. They come from 25 cities and towns in Massachusetts and six in Connecticut.

But even at that price, cost can discourage interest.

“There are many families who would opt for a high quality Catholic faith-based education over public or charter schools,” said Dupont, the diocesan spokesman. “But they simply cannot afford it.”

At the same time, there are fewer and fewer Catholic families opting for parochial education.

In a statement last October concerning the St. Joe’s closing, Bishop Rozanski said the school’s problem was widely shared: “This trend is consistent with an overall decline in school-age children in many western Massachusetts communities and other Catholic schools.”

Further, in a Nov. 8 meeting with eight St. Joe’s parents, Rozanski said the new Pope Francis High School will face the same enrollment challenges, according to a parent who attended.

On the site

This past week, the work site off Wendover Road teemed with workers, as the project moves toward the next phase.

The last piece of steel was installed three weeks ago, according to David P. Owen, the diocese’s project manager. Though a rough winter cost the project 12 to 15 days, it remains on schedule.

“We’re in very good shape here, we really are,” said Owen. That, he was pleased to say, means on time and on budget.

He walked a visitor from The Eagle around the construction site last Wednesday afternoon, when 76 tradespeople were at work erecting the 115,000-square-foot building.

The workforce will only grow. “It will start to creep up a little bit as we enclose it,” Owen said of the structure.

While the former Cathedral sprawled across the site, the Pope Francis footprint is smaller. That’s customary in modern school designs, in part to save on heating costs. The school’s three academic floors will be served by a central elevator.

One of the building’s biggest changes is its 500-seat theater, which will be equipped with modern technology.

“It’s a fine arts theater, not just a high school auditorium, at a college level, ” said Owen.

“This is not a high school. It’s a college preparatory school.”

On the east side of the parcel, a machine was grinding old pavement into reusable construction materials. A separate, prefab building will be assembled at the rear of the school near the playing fields.

Still to come: synthetic turf, grandstands, baseball and softball fields and tennis courts.

In May, brick and stone veneer will start to rise on the outside of the new school, giving it the look now visible only on a banner along a Surrey Road fence in front of the school.

Though there isn’t much to look at yet, current and future students are kept in the loop.

Ann Rivers, director of admissions and enrollment at Pope Francis, helped convene a gathering at the school that showed drone video of the project to about 30 families, as the school recruits its incoming ninth-grade class.

“They know this is the school they’re going to be at in 10th grade,” Rivers said.

Owen believes the building will prove a magnet for families.

“Once people see what’s here, it’s going to change a lot of opinions,” he said. “It’s not a typical high school. A lot of people will look at this in a whole new light.”

That’s needed, he said, “to compete in this increasingly competitive educational environment.”

Like Gagliarducci, Owen’s job will end before the new Pope Francis home welcomes its first students. Whether an addition will ever be needed depends on many factors.

“In every year, student population declined,” Owen said. “It’s a fact of life that fewer children are being born every year.”

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.

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