SPRINGFIELD – The physical merging of the area’s two most prominent Catholic high schools may come sooner than initially anticipated.
Most Rev. Mitchell Rozanski, bishop of Springfield, indicated in a July 23 letter to families the two schools could combine at Holyoke Catholic High School’s current Chicopee campus in September 2016 due to recent enrollment projections.
The diocese initially stated the two campuses – in Chicopee and at Cathedral’s current home at the old Memorial School on Main Street in Wilbraham – would operate under the Pope Francis High School banner starting in 2016 until the new building was completed at Cathedral High School’s former home on Surrey Road in 2018.
“However, since that time, we’ve received a more accurate appraisal of our enrollment numbers and projections and feel that the possibility of merging both facilities into one site with the formal creation of Pope Francis High School in September 2016 may in fact be the best approach,” Rozanski wrote.
Dr. Paul Gagliarducci, tasked with overseeing the creation of Pope Francis High School, told Reminder Publications Holyoke Catholic’s current location on the campus of Our Lady of the Elms College can hold a maximum of 400 students.
“When I first joined this process, there were more than 400 students [at the two schools],” he said. “When I made a presentation to parents, I talked about how I prefered to keep two sites to limit the number of transitions the students would have to go through. Since then, the numbers have not been holding, so the bishop wants to do a study on whether to combine the schools.”
The bishop noted he hopes to hear a recommendation by September.
“We’ve got six or seven weeks to put together this proposal,” Gagliarducci said.
Since the 2008-09 school year, Holyoke Catholic’s highest level of enrollment in Chicopee was 307 in 2010-11, according to figures released by the diocese during the initial decision-making process regarding the future of Catholic education in Hampden County.
Gagliarducci did not speak to specific enrollment projections for the two schools, however, Rozanski indicated in his letter “a smaller enrollment at the Wilbraham site may not present the most effective educational environment for our students.”
Two-hundred and three students attended Cathedral during the 2014-15 school year, while 253 went to Holyoke Catholic.
Cathedral celebrated its 2015 graduation ceremony by distributing 48 diplomas June 5. Seventy-six seniors received diplomas from Holyoke Catholic June 4.
The diocese had previously announced the $50 million new school project would be designed to house between 450 and 500 students with the capacity to expand to 600 students if necessary.
Gagliarducci said he is in the process of working with administrators at both schools, the enrollment team and the diocese’s financial office in order to develop a recommendation.
He said issues ranging from staffing to parking, to food service as variables that would be in play during discussions in the coming weeks. He added the transportation situation was unclear and depended partially on Springfield’s willingness to continue to support the school’s busing program.
agliarducci also noted the diocese would continue working with the consulting firm Partners in Mission.
“They bring experience of having dealt with mergers in the past,” he said.
When asked about a scenario in which enrollment increases beyond 400 students, Gagliarducci said options would be debated.
“That’s a difficult question to answer at this point, but honestly, I thing everyone would smile if he had that kind of problem,” he said.
While stipulating nothing was certain, he identified the creation of a waiting list, suspending the schools’ current practice of accepting foreign students, or utilizing additional space at Elms College as potential remedies for increased enrollment.
The lease agreement between the town of Wilbraham, which owns the building, and Cathedral expires after the upcoming school year.
After initially agreeing to an approximately $300,000 lease with the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District to move into the school after the June 1, 2011 tornado struck the school, the diocese had to renew the lease with the town after a dispute among town officials over the rightful receiver of the rental fees. A new one-year, $360,550 lease with two one-year renewal options was was signed on June 28, 2013. Wilbraham Town Administrator Nick Breault said the contract was renewed for next year.
“The current lease is due up for discussion and I think that was also part of the motivation for the bishop’s timeline – let’s make a decision now so we can inform the town of Wilbraham. It’s only fair to them,” Gagliarducci said.
In terms of keeping the public informed, he said a meeting will take place in September. The also diocese released the July 23 letter not only to the families of the two student bodies, but also to the diocese at large and local “feeder schools,” or K-8 Catholic schools will potential future enrollees.