Thursday, May 21, 2009

A luncheon at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy

I enjoyed a tour of of the newly renovated Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy in Dorchester yesterday, along with a group of civic leaders headed by Peter Lynch. We were escorted through the school by eighth grade students who were proud to show off their school. The newly renovated hundred year old school building was bustling with hard working students and teachers who were polite, focused and clearly intent on learning.

At lunch time we were rewarded with performances from some of the children. The youngsters sang a song and pledged allegiance to the flag, the first graders played 'We shall overcome' with bells, and the fifth graders played a John Denver song with violins and flutes.

I spoke at length with Mary Russo who is the head of the five schools in Dorchester and Mattapan that make up Pope John Paul II or "PJP2" as they call it about how and what they are doing.

Their results are truly impressive. Many of their students are first generation immigrants from Haiti, Vietnam, Cape Verde and English is not always their first language. It is obviously a truly diverse student body which reflects the majority minority city we live in. They immerse the children who are not native English speakers in class with usually a half hour a day of one on one language skills with a goal of getting the children as quickly as possible to be grade proficient in English so that they need no additional tutoring.

53% of their kids get into the three Boston Exam schools, with many others going to traditional Catholic schools like Matignon and BC High. I asked what leads to their success and she said that more school time, discipline, high expectations and accountability were key. The children take exams in the fall and again in the spring to gauge their advancement and how children do is part of the performance grade of the teachers.

They have parent teacher conferences where the students take the day off and each parent gets about half an hour with the teacher to discuss each individual child.
They have a longer school day which goes from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each day with after school programs for the children as an option as well. They accept children with disabilities (of course) and I saw one girl in a wheelchair fully engaged in class.

They spend less than $8,000 a year per student to achieve these results which is remarkable (Boston Public Schools spend about $20,000 per year). Tuition is less than $4,000 and is on a sliding scale so that families can afford it. One reason for this is that they only pay teachers between $28,000 and $36,000 a year (which was shockingly low to me), and Mrs. Russo talked glowingly about the dedication of their teachers to the program. Grants, scholarships and the church make up the difference.

Another reason for the low cost is clearly the low overhead. Each school of about 300 children just has a single principal and one assistant to handle what goes on with the teachers and the students.

The school is shiny and bright with a new gym (where I was one for one from the foul line despite my suit!) and cafeteria. There clearly was an environment for growth, learning, and respect which clearly comes down directly from Mary Russo. She said repeatedly about how they love visitors, and how the children love visitors because it reinforces that people care about the work they are doing.

This only reinforces my promise as Mayor to spend one day a week in the schools. I have seen how children respond to attention from adults, especially "important" adults like Congressman, Mayors and especially their favorite athletes. It is the least our elected officials should do when we spend 1/3 of our budget on the schools.

Congratulations to Pope John Paul II Academy and thanks to Mary Russo for her time. We need to learn from our success stories in the City so that we can make all the schools pathways to success.

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