By John Lynds
The Boston Redevelopment Authority and architects for Excel Academy Charter School pitched plans last week to turn the former St. Mary’s Star of the Sea School into Excel’s new home.
Rumors have been floating around for the better part of a year that Excel was in negotiations with the Boston Archdiocese to purchase the school building and adjacent convent for a reported $1.8 million
This month, Excel signed a purchase and sale agreement and has began trying to gain community support for the project, which, judging from last week’s meeting, seems like an easy task for the school.
At last weeks meeting, residents got a glimpse of the proposed plans, which includes tearing down the convent, adding a glass solarium as an entranceway to the school and adding attractive landscaping around the campus.
The BRA and Architects said if all goes well with the community process Excel should begin construction in July and be completed with the rehab of the building and surrounding grounds by August of 2012/ The school would then be opened for the 2012/2013 school year.
Excel Academy Charter School (www.excelacademy.org) is a tuition-free, public middle school serving students from Eastie and Chelsea.
Its mission is to prepare students to succeed in high school and college, apply their learning to solve relevant problems and engage productively in the community. Excel currently serves 211 students in grades five through eight, of which two-thirds are Latino and low-income.
This past school year Excel ranked first in the state in English and fourth in the state in math for improving student performance over time and has been identified as a high growth school.
Excel Academy students grew at the 86th percentile in English language arts, meaning Excel Academy students progressed at a faster rate than 86 percent of their peers statewide. In math, Excel Academy students grew at the 83rd percentile, outpacing the improvements of their statewide peers by a rate of 83 percent.
“At Excel Academy we are committed to providing the highest quality instruction and individualized support to ensure that all students can achieve at high levels,” said Excel Academy’s Interim Executive Director Rebecca Cass, “These results demonstrate that our commitment helps each child make significant academic gains year after year.”
Excel Academy students posted some of the highest MCAS scores in the state, earning them first place rankings on both the eighth grade English Language Arts and math examinations.
The school’s MCAS achievements, coupled with its growth results, earned Excel Academy the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s “high achievement, high growth” school designation.
In April 2008 the Archdiocese abruptly pulled the plug on St. Mary’s school without warning. The news came as a shock to parents with many saying they were never warned by the Archdiocese that the school was in dire straights. The Archdiocese said a combination of factors contributed to the school’s demise–including declining and low enrollment, a large financial deficit and low registration for 2008/2009 school year. The Archdiocese said enrollment had declined 40 percent since 2004 to 164 students (down from 275). The projection for 2008/2009 school year was 90 students.
However, many parents at the time disagreed with those projections. Parents with students enrolled in the school had not yet fill out re-registration forms for the 2008-2009 school year that were due that April. Some say enrollment for the following year was as high as 160 kids.
St. Mary’s school was part of St. Mary’s parish, which included the school, church, rectory and convent.
The church, parish hall and rectory was then sold in February 2006 to South Boston photographer Michael Indresano for $850,000.
Nineteen days later, Indresano sold the church property for $2.65 million to an evangelist church based in Brazil – the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
Parents with children at the school right across the street from the church paid close attention to the sale scandal but at the same time were elated that the St. Mary’s was able to gain an extra building. They were grateful to the Archdiocese.
Over the next two years the school’s administration quickly began an ambitious plan to expand the school and convert the former convent into a cafeteria, science lab and chapel-three things the school was lacking.
The school administration and dedicated parents were able to raise money and do a lot of the work on their own–most of the money coming from St. Mary’s Home and School Committee fundraisers, parents and alumni.
None of the money netted by the Archdiocese from the sale of the church to Indresano went to St. Mary’s School’s efforts to rehab the former convent or the school’s aging roof. Nor was any money used to advertise the school or reach out to surrounding communities to boost St. Mary’s enrollment.
Then the Archdiocese gathered parents in 2008 and informed them they would close St. Mary’s school at the end of the school year–citing low enrollment and a large financial deficit as the reason.