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Bishop Cote Celebrates Opening of New Blessed John Paul II Regional School

By Shelley Wolf, FCC Contributor/Photos by Donna Antonacci

Middletown - Nearly 175 eager young students clad in red, white and blue uniforms gathered at the modern St. Mary of Czestochowa Church in Middletown on Thursday, September 5 to welcome the Most Reverend Michael R. Cote, Bishop of Norwich. Teachers, administrators and parents were also on hand for the special 10:00 a.m. Mass and blessing, which marked the official opening of the new Blessed John Paul II Regional School.

“Today is the beginning of a new adventure, setting out into the deep and the great unknown,” Bishop Cote said. “This new school is a venture, but not just any venture. It’s a venture in faith, an invitation from Christ to do more together than we can do alone.”

“The worries of the last three or four years are behind us,” the Bishop said. “Our goal has been to preserve and maintain Catholic education and to make it flourish. Last winter, with support from pastors and school boards, we found success through prayer and hard work. Scores of teachers and parents also gave of their time. Congratulations to all.”

Then the Bishop sprinkled holy water on a gold-framed painting of Pope John Paul II, which sat on an easel. “Look upon these students and let them enjoy their learning and take delight in their discovery,” Bishop Cote said during his blessing.

One week prior to the Bishop’s blessing, Blessed John Paul II Regional School, a new Catholic regional school housed at the former St. Mary School campus on South Main Street in Middletown, opened its doors for the first time to students in prekindergarten through eighth grade.

With new teaching staff, building upgrades, curriculum enhancements, and the latest technology, the diocese’s first regional elementary and middle school is now serving families throughout the Middletown Deanery by offering a challenging academic education combined with Catholic, Gospel-based faith formation.

The new school is a joining of the former St. Mary and St. John schools, which were both situated in downtown Middletown, less financially challenged than one mile apart, and both in 2012. Nearby St. Sebastian School closed in 2009.

“There is a rich tradition of Catholic elementary schools in Middletown.” said Kathleen Peck, Principal of Blessed John Paul II Regional School.

“Bishop Cote directed us with the overarching goal of preserving Catholic education in the region,” explained Dr. Edward J. Shine, Superintendent of Schools, Diocese of Norwich. “So in January 2013, the pastors and school boards of St. Mary and St. John voted to join the two schools to create one with support from all the parishes in the deanery.”

The two school boards joined to form an interim school board, named the new school John Paul II, and developed a vision of expanding enrollment beyond the two original schools to serve the entire Middletown Deanery.

Next year, each parish in the Middletown Deanery will recommend one representative to sit on the school board to make it a true regional school, Dr. Shine noted. The principals of Mercy and Xavier High Schools already sit on the board and have an impact on the curriculum, Principal Peck added.

According to Dr. Shine, this year Blessed John Paul II is being financially supported primarily by the parishes of St. Mary and St. John. However, next year, the 10 parishes in the Middletown Deanery will begin contributing financial support with gradual stepped-up contributions over the next four years.

The new soon to be Saint John Paul II Regional School is currently staffed by teachers from the former St. Mary and St. John elementary schools as well as by several new instructors. Reverend Richard Sliwinski, the pastor at St. Mary’s Church, is serving as the new school’s spiritual advisor, while Very Reverend Michael Phillipinno, Pastor of St. John’s Church, is serving as assistant spiritual leader.

This past summer, the former St. Mary School, a two-story Renaissance Revival brick building built on South Main Street in 1930, was transformed into Blessed John Paul II Regional School thanks to parents and students who volunteered to clean, paint, and upgrade the facility.

“We had a long list of work that we couldn’t have done without volunteers,” Peck stressed.

A combination of skilled workers and volunteers painted all classrooms, pulled up carpet, tiled the hallways, built bookshelves, upgraded the rest rooms, power washed outdoor toys, and added new Wi-Fi infrastructure. A parent who works at Bristol-Myers Squibb arranged for the donation of used science benches, sinks and glassware to build a new science lab.

In addition, a committee of parents and students chose school colors, new uniforms, and a school mascot.

Bob Fritz, the former principal of St. John School, was hired as the Director of Marketing, Admissions and Development for Blessed John Paul II. He marketed the new school through paid ads and with help from volunteer Tom Dzimian, who pitched the school to parishioners after Mass at all 10 parishes in the Middletown Deanery.

“We’ve already seen a pickup in enrollment,” Fritz said.

The new school began with what looked like 140 students combined from the former St. Mary and St. John Schools, Fritz said. It lost a few of those students to other schools over the summer, but began the new school year this fall with a total of 175 students enrolled — for a net addition of 35 students. “Now it’s up to word of mouth,” Fritz said.

“Word of mouth and parents are our best advertising,” Peck said in agreement. “So we are trying to build a great school.”

To that end, Blessed John Paul II Regional School will follow the Hartford Archdiocesan Schools Curriculum and the Common Core State Standards, offering courses in Religious Studies, Math, Reading and Literature, Language Arts and Writing, Social Studies, Science, and Spanish. 

An expanded Spanish program, based on a successful model in Rye, New York, was just instituted and involves three 30-minute Spanish classes per week for grades 1 through 5, and three 45-minute Spanish classes per week for grades 6 through 8.

“The idea is if the kids are involved in speaking Spanish for 12 years, upon graduation, they would be close to fluent,” Dr. Shine explained. “We really belong to a bilingual country.”

The new school has also taken steps to keep up with changing technology. The school purchased laptop computer carts for all grades to store and power laptops, purchased Samsung Galaxy e-reader tablets for middle school students, and made the leap to digital textbooks for the older students.

“This provides a lot of opportunity to use technology in a meaningful way,” Peck explained.

In addition, the new school has expanded its arts program to include a full band program, chorus, drama, and art, Peck said.

“Social justice is also a big component of a Catholic education,” Peck added. Among many service projects, students will work at the St. Vincent de Paul, Middletown, soup kitchen; visit residents at Water’s Edge rehabilitation facility; and donate Christmas gifts to needy children through the Salvation Army.

“We really want to build a family of students and a Catholic identity,” Peck stressed. “With a strong and visible identity, we live those Catholic values.”

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