Sep 6, 2011

Familiar faces greet Catholic school students displaced by last summer’s tornado



(Photo by Father Robert Riel) 

By Rebecca Drake

SPRINGFIELD – Students at Springfield’s St. Michael’s Academy Middle School and Cathedral High School had one more reason for back-to-school anxiety this year: trying to settle in at new locations.

The Cathedral High School building on Surrey Road, which included the middle school and preschool campuses of St. Michael’s Academy, were heavily damaged on June 1 when an EF-3 tornado tore a 39-mile path of destruction from West Springfield to Sturbridge. Diocesan officials spent the summer researching and selecting alternate temporary locations for the school programs while the Cathedral buildings are repaired and/or rebuilt, possibly a time period of 18 to 24 months.

The preschool students from St. Michael’s Academy also have been relocated to a space at the Wachogue Congregational Church near Holy Cross Church in Springfield.

But the middle school students who reported to the Holy Cross Parish campus of St. Michael’s Academy and the high school seniors who spent their first day at Memorial School in Wilbraham were welcomed by familiar teachers and staff members as they negotiated their new surroundings on Sept. 6.

                                          (Photos by Rebecca Drake)

“The wonderful thing about Catholic education is that teachers who participate in the program that we have find a sense of home here and so all of our teachers are returning,” said Nelly de Carvalho, head administrator of St. Michael’s Academy. “So the idea of that familiarity of having the teachers that know them already and that love them, and teachers that are excited to meet the new students who are going to be a part of our school community and embracing them into the fold, that’s something that we’re looking forward to.”

John Miller, principal of Cathedral High School, acknowledged the challenges of adapting academic and extracurricular programs in the smaller setting of Memorial School. But he said the close-knit, prayerful community of Cathedral will be a source of strength for students and staff alike.

“We hang together, we’re a close-knit community, we’re a prayerful community,” he said. “We see ourselves being motivated by the grace of God to pull ourselves together after one tragedy after another. And we only get stronger every time.”

Franciscan Sister of St. Joseph M. Andrea Ciszewski, superintendent of Catholic schools fro the Springfield Diocese, said the concerns in finding new locations for students included finding adequate space to safely accommodate students and proximity to the original site.

Sister Ciszewski expressed gratitude for all of the assistance, both material and spiritual, received from diocesan officials, teachers, staff, parents and municipal offices in helping to set up the new classrooms at Holy Cross and Memorial School. And students at all of the Catholic schools will benefit from ongoing academic initiatives and technology upgrades, she said.

“For 21st century learning, we have to employ many different aspects of technology. So we have schools providing additional Smart Boards, iPads, iPods… We are looking at instructional leadership and are very concerned about the safety of students in today’s world.”

Sister Ciszewski said the school department’s annual in-service day in October will focus on school law and the topic of bullying.

Both de Carvalho and Miller said they believe academic and extracurricular programs will continue to thrive for the students who are temporarily displaced from the damaged school properties.

“None of us envision that the academic program is going to be impacted at all by the fact that the majority of the school community will be in one building,” de Carvalho said. “For us, it’s a wonderful opportunity to develop that spirit of community that you find in any Catholic school. So we’re all going to be together as brothers and sisters.”

Miller said that thanks to Cathedral High School’s new athletic director, Joseph Hegarty, the athletic program will be maintained in alternate locations.

“Thankfully, he has our fall program all set and now we’re working on our winter program, “Miller said. He noted that other secondary and high schools in the city have made their fields available for practices and games. He also said the drama program will continue, but the school is still looking for a stage on which to practice and perform.

Miller acknowledged the expertise of the newly appointed president of Cathedral High School, Ann Southworth, who will focus on development, fund-raising and implementing new academic initiatives, such as the international baccalaureate program.

But most importantly, Miller said, the caring culture of the school will ensure its continuing success. “We’re a small group of teachers and students now. We’re a college prep school. We have very successful students. We are successful in the athletic field.”

“I’m looking forward to a year where we’ll be close together in this small building, which is so much smaller than Cathedral but nevertheless adequate for our program,” he said. “But it will mean that we’re sharing more and working closely together and I think that will be good for the culture, and we still will bring with us our prayerful culture that we always had.”

(Editor’s note: A segment on the beginning of the new academic year in local Catholic schools will air at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17 on the Springfield Diocese’s weekly newsmagazine, “Real to Reel,” which is broadcast on WWLP-22NEWS.)