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Spotlight Report

Shutting down

Students mourn the closing of one of the last all-girls Catholic high schools in city

By Michele Kurtz and Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/30/2003

Alyson Wuschke and Jessica Hayes, 11th graders at Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School in Dorchester, react to the announcement that their school will close at year's end. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)
For Elise Rae, it was a legacy, the path to knowledge and confidence in the comforting all-girls setting of Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School. Her sister graduated from the Dorchester school last year, and she would walk down the commencement aisle herself in 2005.

But yesterday Rae, 16, spent much of the day tearfully recounting memories with her best friend as they mourned the closing of one of the last all-girls Catholic high schools in the city. They will never graduate from the school that has come to mean so much to them - and to thousands of Boston women.

''It feels like school's gone,'' Rae said, her voice cracking.

The 140 students gathered yesterday morning in the basement of St. Margaret Church in Dorchester, where their parish pastor told them officially what they'd feared for months: Financial strains were forcing the 85-year-old school to shut down after this spring.

''I've been trying to see a good out of this but I'm not there yet,'' the Rev. Nicholas C. Ciccone Jr. told the students. ''To me, it's a senseless closing.''

Afterward, the students met in groups with teachers to begin discussing where they might transfer in the fall. They hugged each other in the hallways. And they had questions for their pastor and principal. Can the junior class be sent to another school as a group, one girl asked. How will students get their yearbooks, which arrive in the fall? What about those students who already bought class rings?

The scene is sure to play out again soon. Bishop Richard G. Lennon, interim apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston, said yesterday that he'll notify tomorrow the pastors of three parishes - presumably including St. Margaret's - of school closings.

And Lennon said he expects to announce more next month.

Some of the schools are near other Catholic campuses, Lennon said, so he anticipates they'll be able to absorb some students. Lennon, himself a graduate of Catholic schools, said he wants to preserve Catholic education - but more efficiently. Some schools are underused and their enrollments should be combined with those of other schools, he said.

''These are not decisions that I relish or am happy about. This is not someone who doesn't have personal experience and good feelings about it, about the experience of Catholic schools,'' Lennon said. ''However, we have severe financial problems, and I cannot underestimate those or understate them. I have to live with reality.''

Yesterday, as news of possible school closures spread, some Catholic school communities worried that their campuses might fall victim to budget problems, while others, nevertheless, tried to proceed with plans for the next school year.

Parents and teachers at Charlestown Catholic School said yesterday they're anxiously awaiting word from school officials about the fate of their campus. At St. Ambrose School in Dorchester, school officials said they were registering new students for the fall.

Like other parishes, St. Margaret's had been told a year ago to expect a cut in school subsidies from the archdiocese, which for years has helped sustain schools. A decrease from $420,000 to $300,000 for the next school year - along with other ongoing financial struggles - prompted Ciccone to choose between leaving open the high school or the parish grammar school, he told students.

''I shouldn't have had to make a choice, but of the two choices I know you will do well because you're older,'' he said.

The archdiocese is hoping to sell a building on the St. Margaret's site and let the parish use the proceeds to continue operating the K-8 school. Other schools in the archdiocese have closed in recent years, but it appears that the clergy sexual abuse scandal has made tight financial times for some schools even worse.

Some Monsignor Ryan students said that that has made the school closing more difficult to accept.

''This group of girls is great friends and we're being punished because people are disgraced to be part of the archdiocese after what happened,'' Rae said. ''We're being punished for someone else's mistakes.''

Several students said yesterday they weren't sure where they'd attend school next, although principal Mary Ferrucci said she has talked to other Catholic schools about accepting the students.

Monsignor Ryan, where nearly 90 percent of students receive some financial aid to help with tuition, has an ethnically diverse student body. Roughly 90 percent of its graduates go on to college. During the last six years the school's enrollment has dropped from 210 students to 140, hurting its ability to be self-sufficient, Ferrucci said.

But the small numbers also made for stronger relationships, some said.

''I need a small place and this has provided that for me,'' said sophomore Kasey Ryan, 15. ''I'm angry.''

Teachers also said they relished the chance to focus on a small number of students whose faces - and needs - quickly became familiar.

''I can't see teaching anywhere else,'' said Kellie Farrell, a history teacher for four years at the school. ''I know every kid in this school; it's very personal.''

Yesterday, alumnae of the school remembered ''baby days'' where freshmen dressed as toddlers were paired with seniors who showed them around the school. And the alumnae, who attended classes 20 years ago, recalled fondly that the school has no gymnasium, so girls walked to nearby facilities for physical education.

Sister Esther Plefka, a 1966 graduate of the school and a current cochairwoman of its advisory board, said she felt the single-sex aspect of the school was one of its strongest suits.

''The advantage is focus, the ability for girls to use their potential fully without distraction. In a coed environment, there are other pressures that are present,'' Plefka said. ''Personally, I loved it that it was all girls. We used to go to the Boston College High School dances every Friday night, so we had lots of connections.''

Supporters of the school are hoping to preserve that all-girls environment somehow. They are working to raise about $1 million to start an independent Catholic girls high school in Dorchester, Roxbury, or South Boston.

That makes sense to Rae, who said she worries that some girls won't get a chance for a same-sex education. She's thankful, though, that she got to be a part of it.

''You're not affected by boys. You never tried to look beautiful to go to school,'' Rae said. ''You could go to school to learn and not try to be someone else.

''Being in that environment for a long time, I know that it will help me to realize I'm perfect as I am and I don't have to change for anyone else.''

Megan Tench of the Globe Staff and Globe correspondent Karla Kingsley contributed to this report.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 1/30/2003.
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