Students, staff and parents gather with Linda Coppola, principal of St. Mary/St. Michael School in Derby, to look over ducks and prizes from this summer’s third annual Housy River Duck Race on June 25 that helped to raise funds for the school. From left are Grace Torres, financial administrator; Domenick Valentino, financial committee chair for the school board; fifth grader Alexys Ryan; Ms. Coppola; third grader Aryanna Ryan; and Gloriann Albini, whose children attend the school. (Photo by Mary Chalupsky)
DERBY – When St. Mary-St. Michael School faced closing because of declining enrollment last year, a group of parents dug in their heels and formed a task force to rally the community and create a financial plan to save the school.
Now, a year later, parents say the school is back on track.
"The school is going great," said Gloriann Albini, one of the parents. "Our debt is minimal; our enrollment is up. We’ve had a wildly successful fund-raising year. The school is clean and shiny, and the kids are happy."
Mrs. Albini’s optimism reflects the extent of a multilevel plan that parents pitched to the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office of Catholic Schools last year to convince officials of their commitment to turn around the 126-year-old school.
The comprehensive plan included an aggressive marketing campaign; a development campaign comprising grants, financial aid, alumni donations and fund-raising events; curriculum changes emphasizing technology and the arts; a new prekindergarten program; and before- and after-school activities.
Another change was the introduction last year of a new principal, Linda Coppola, a graduate of St. Mary’s School and a seasoned educator with 36 years of teaching experience in Derby public schools.
"When parents heard that the school might close last year, the news was detrimental for everyone," said Mrs. Coppola. "Many pulled students out and that’s what caused enrollment to drop."
For the 2009-10 year, the school enrolled 114 students, she explained, but enrollment fell last year to only 89 students. "So, we’ve spent the whole year changing things," she said. "Our goal this year is to have 100 students. We already have 98 so we’re close."
In addition to typical fund-raising activities that included a Christmas fair, candle sale, wrapping paper sale, walk-a-thons, spell-a-thons and monthly family dinners, the school initiated a golf tournament, a rubber duck and road race as part of Derby Day, and an alumni recognition event, as well as restarted bingo.
"We made a point of reaching out to alumni, which we hadn’t done before," said Mrs. Albini.
At an alumni dinner last March, two parishioners who strongly support the school and three alumni were recognized. One grad was former New York Jets football player Nicholas DeFelice, now president of Oxford Industries, who established a fund in memory of his mother, Carrie DeFelice for the values she instilled in him. Mr. DeFelice presented the school with a check for $5,000. That fund is now over $10,000 with additional contributions from alumni. A direct appeal to alumni resulted in another $15,000 in donations.
The new pre-K program currently has 12 students with a goal of enrolling 20 students.
Technology initiatives included adding e-mail, offering electronic report cards and progress reports, and installing interactive white boards to three classrooms. Two additional white boards will be added this year, thanks to a grant from the archdiocese.
Two generous donors also purchased a cart of laptops for a portable computer lab that will be available to students, including those taking a technology class that starts this fall.
Support from the two parishes also was key to the turnaround. The school has beefed up communication, including providing a news column in the parish bulletins. And the pastors of both parishes have been "extremely supportive of our school," said Mrs. Coppola.
Teachers also started a drama club with the help of a grant from the Valley Community Foundation and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. Also, the school applied for an arts enrichment grant that will enable students to work with a guest artist from the Derby Arts Council and visit the Yale Art Gallery to study various artists.
"All of these things have really jump-started the school," said Mrs. Coppola. "The economy is horrendous and people are struggling. A lot of parents have lost jobs and come to me to work out a payment program (for tuition that averages $3,400 per student). But, they continue to come to our school because they are so committed to a Catholic education in a safe environment.
"Parents find the curriculum here more rigorous," she continued, "but that’s why they send their children here."