It's the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation, and the students at Southington Catholic School are joining adult parishioners for the noontime Mass at nearby St. Thomas Church. Though many adults are present, some of the middle school students step up to the ambo and serve as lectors.
After the Mass, the students in this preK-8 school arrange themselves on the steps of the sanctuary for a long-overdue class picture. Then they are released, and their bottled-up energy becomes apparent.
They wrestle into their winter coats, chatting too loudly, and must be reminded that they are still in church. But once it’s time to leave — without any prompting from the teachers — the middle school students hold hands with the elementary school students and guide them safely along the crosswalk through the parking lot and back to class.
It’s an inspiring and hopeful sight of young leaders in the making, the next generation of Catholic students learning to practice their faith, to serve the Church and to serve one another. And that’s all in addition to the rigorous academics that are preparing them for future advancement in high school, college and beyond.
It’s a scene that not everyone could envision a few years ago.
Southington Catholic School was dedicated in August 2015, created from the merger of two Southington schools –– St. Thomas School, which served preK-8 grade, and St. Dominic School, which served preK-5.
During the 2012-13 school year, the two schools saw a sudden drop in enrollment when the town’s public school system offered free full-day kindergarten. At St. Thomas School, the number of kindergartners dropped from 25 to 5; St. Dominic School saw a similar decrease.
“We had a total of 15 kindergartners between us,” said Father Nicholas Melo, pastor of St. Thomas Parish and spiritual director of the former St. Thomas School on Bristol Street in downtown. “That’s the red flag. If that’s your feeder, what are you going to end up with in eighth grade? Father May started saying, ‘Maybe it’s time to start talking about ways to merge.’”
Father Ronald May, pastor of St. Dominic Parish and spiritual director of the former St. Dominic School on Flanders Road on the east side of town, explained his thinking: “If we continued to compete, with our limited resources, it was going to be self-defeating.”
Together, the two pastors concluded it would be better “to be proactive” and to pool their resources “to create something new.” During the 2013-14 school year, the two pastors consulted with their trustees, finance councils and the archdiocese. After gaining approval, they set up a steering committee with members from both parishes to explore possible ways to merge.
“Obviously, the good news about Catholic schools is that people become passionate about them,” recalled Donna Finn, a member of the steering committee and later chair of the first school board, “but there’s a mourning there ... because you’re losing something. It’s dealing with those emotions and forging ahead. Letting go of what we know and embracing what we don’t. I think that about sums up 2014.”
In January 2015, the two priests sent out a pastoral letter to parents announcing the closing of both schools and the creation of a new school serving children in preK-8 at the former St. Thomas School campus. Three months later, they announced the new tuition, blended faculty and a new name: Southington Catholic School.
“A few names were thrown out there –– saints’ names –– but we wanted to show unmistakably that we were a regional school,” Father Melo explained.
By the summer of 2015, the steering committee was replaced by a school board that reflected a new regional alliance, with representatives from all five Catholic parishes in town, including Immaculate Conception, Mary Our Queen and St. Aloysius.
In addition, St. Thomas and St. Dominic parishes signed a memorandum of understanding, both committing to fund the new school for the next three years, thereby putting it on a firmer financial footing.
To stabilize enrollment, the marketing plan focused on publicizing the new school to parents at all five parishes and asking for their help with publicity.
Other key building blocks involved drafting vision and mission statements, hiring a full-time advancement director and forming a new home-school association.
The administrators and school staff also worked tirelessly to establish a new school and culture, combining the best of the former schools: the new furniture and computers from one with the building of the other. A new sign went up. And they decided to continue and combine each school’s traditions at the town’s Apple Harvest Festival.
“Whoever in their whole life has an opportunity to build a new school from the ground up?” Father Melo asked.
Finally, it was opening day. On Aug. 23, 2015, Archbishop Leonard P. Blair blessed and dedicated the new school, calling it “a model for our church and our communities in meeting the challenges of today.”
By the time the two former schools closed, they were down to an enrollment of 125 students each. The new school opened with 147 students, a blended staff, a regional vision, financial support from two parishes and ongoing marketing and publicity.
While the adults held their breath, the children quickly adapted. “In 48 hours, they were all Southington Catholic School kids,” said Mary Alexander, the school’s director of advancement.
The 2016-17 school year saw the addition of a new principal, Eileen Sampiere. Also, the enrollment inched up to 150 students, which Ms. Alexander said included replacing 22 eighth-graders who’d graduated the year before –– a sign that the new school was holding its own.
Michael Griffin, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, said the new enrollment figures are an achievement. “At a time when enrollment has been declining in many Catholic schools, here and across the country, I think it’s a tribute that they achieved level enrollment going into their second year,” he said.
“It has a lot of things going for it,” the superintendent added. “It’s sensible in terms of combining resources, has good leadership, a good program. But they’ll be the first to tell you that they need to keep working because there has been a change –– so they must continue helping parents to see the value in Catholic schools.”
There’s now a waiting list for the 3-year-old and 4-year-old preK classes, Ms. Alexander said.
Both pastors said the outcome was well worth the effort and that, in the end, it’s all about the children. “Kids will grow wonderfully,” Father May said, “if we continue to put resources into our schools.”
A few facts about Southington Catholic School:
• Students perform above the national average on standardized tests;
• The school uses the Superkids Reading Program, enabling kindergartners to read by the time they graduate;
• It also uses interactive SMART Boards and SMART Tables in classrooms;
• Spanish is taught preK-8; and
• The school offers optional enrichment courses, such as computer programming.
For more information, visit: www.southingtoncatholicschool.org
Another new beginning
At the former St. Dominic School on Flanders Road, another new story is just beginning. After carefully considering various uses for the building, St. Dominic Parish leaders decided to open a day-care center and run it themselves.
In October 2016, the new St. Dominic Child Care Center opened its doors with eight staff members. “It meets a great need in the community,” Father May said.
Before coming to a decision, parish leaders sought advice from parishioners who worked in day care and from state regulators. In addition, they visited St. Rita Day Care Center in Hamden.
By the end of December 2016, the center had 29 children enrolled, with town approval for up to 60 children in four rooms, Father May said. “Southington is still one area of the state that is growing in population,” he said.
Father May intends to inform parents at St. Dominic Child Care Center about Southington Catholic School, where they will then be told about St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol.
“We’re trying to offer another option,” he said. “I’m very hopeful that we can build Catholic education in this area.”
For more information, visit: www.saintdominicchurch.com/child-care-center