Listen to the show:
Today’s host(s): Scot Landry
Today’s guest(s): Fr. Paul O’Brien, Pastor of St. Patrick’s, Lawrence, and Sr. Lucy Veilleux, Principal of Lawrence Catholic Academy
Links from today’s show:
Today’s topics: Catholic Schools Week: Lawrence Catholic Academy
Summary of today’s show: Lawrence Catholic Academy may be only two years old, but it builds on more than 100 years of Catholic education in Lawrence. Fr. Paul O’Brien and Sr. Lucy Veilleux talk to Scot Landry about the challenges facing their school in the poorest city in the state where 75% of kids come from single-parents families and the crime rate is skyrocketing. While the public school system has been taken over by the state, LCA had 100% graduation rate. What is their secret? And how did they manage to bring together two different schools with long traditions of their own in such a short time?
1st segment: Scot said it’s Catholic Schools Week, a time to focus on the importance of Catholic schools in the life of our Church and for society to recall the important impact our Catholic schools have had on our nation. Especially in inner cities, Catholic schools have helped students to excel and rise out of poverty and become leaders.
Scot said it’s up to this generation to continue this legacy. He welcomed Fr. Paul O’Brien and Sr. Lucy Veilleux from Lawrence Catholic Academy. It was founded in 2010 with the St. Patrick School and Our Lady of Good Counsel came together.
Fr. Paul said having a full school located at the parish in the inner city is great. The school now has more than 500 students. Sr. Lucy said families are very impressed by the faculty, how dedicated they are to the students. Fr. Paul said there were three Catholic elementary schools in Lawrence: Our Lady of Good Counsel in Lawrence was small, St Mary was a little bigger, and St. Patrick was biggest. They wanted to avoid the pattern of closing one by one, but combined for the greater strength of Catholic education for the entire city. It was a sacrifice for everyone. St. Patrick’s which could have survived gave up its identity in order to bring together more students and keep a strength of Catholic education for the city.
Sr. Lucy said they put a lot of effort into bringing the students into the new school with the changes. Fr. Paul said the middle school kids had the hardest time assimilating into the new school. He said it took most of the first year to integrate the 5th, 6th, and 7th graders socially. Sr. Lucy said giving up the uniforms was the biggest change and they took the effort to choose a new uniform for everyone.
They are planning to open up another second grade class next year, but that will put them at capacity. Fr. Paul said the parents were the ones most concerned about the future viability of schools and he was surprised by how the parents accepted the change. From the beginning the parents said they didn’t want to give up their own schools, but they need this what they needed to do. It’s a credit to the honesty of the school leaders and transparent. He said people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are very realistic about the challenges of living in Lawrence and the need to keep the schools open. He said a desire for a Catholic education overrode school or parish loyalties.
Scot said others may want to know how to integrate two separate communities into one. Sr. Lucy said the first step was to work with the staff. They had an off-campus retreat day for the staff. People were angry and had to seek forgiveness or forgive others. After that they were worked together as one to form Lawrence Catholic Academy. She said every event that the individual schools had was evaluated in order to create a new tradition. People felt like it wasn’t one school taking over another, but that this was a new school.
Scot said St. Patrick had a school for 100 years. Fr. Paul said as a parish they affirmed that they were as committed to the school as they were before. The pastors are ex-officio members of the Board of Trustees of the school. It’s an expansion of Catholic education, not a contraction.
Sr. Lucy said 20% of students are non-Catholic. 38% are Hispanic, about 20% are Anglo, and the rest are a combination of other immigrant groups and African-American. In Lawrence, about 75% of households don’t speak English at home. Most kids in Lawrence don’t speak Spanish as their first language, though.
Scot said in recent months, the public school system in Lawrence was taken over by the state for academic non-performance. Fr. Paul said Lawrence is about 80,000 people in the economically poorest city in the state. Two-thirds of kids are born to single moms. Gangs and crime are rampant. The public school system is consistently the lowest performing community on MCAS tests. Lawrence Catholic Academy is educating the same kids. While they have a higher percentage of middle-class families, they also have many of the kids in the worst circumstances. They have a 100% graduation rate.
Sr. Lucy said the secret is the dedication of teachers to the students. The lack of a union helps. The parents believe in the program and ensure that students do the homework. And the students want to be in the school and they know what the alternative is. They include the parents in activities. This week they had a Mass for Catholic Schools Week. Parents help with fundraising, they come in for meetings with teachers. Fr. Paul said the parents understand the standards of the school and they also buy-in to the tuition. Whether they are paying full rate or getting scholarships, they are investing a significant amount. They have a 99.9% payment rate of tuition receivables.
Sr. Lucy said many families work 3 jobs, leave work on lunch break to pick up their kids or the kids stay at an afterschool program for late-working parents. Parents give up lunch hours to participate in programs during the day and spend time with the kids doing homework at night. They see this as the children’s way out of Lawrence.
Scot said a key factor is how teachers in Catholic schools love their students. Fr. Paul said the teachers are involved in the school out of their faith. They could be making more elsewhere, but they are here because of their faith. Catholic eduction works because we believe God created these kids, He loves them, and we love them. A child may respect an adult and their message, but that may not override the other influences in their life. But if it’s God giving them the message, then it’s God they are responsible to.
Sr. Lucy said they permeate respect in school for all students and all people. If students or teachers don’t respect each other, they don’t stay in the school. They see examples of love and respect and respond to that. There is a zero-bullying policy in the schools and they want the kids to feel safe.
Fr. Paul said Cor Unum meal center is one-block from the school and so kids who are hungry can eat there with their families. They also have free or reduced cost meals at the school itself. They also also have kids who go to Cor Unum get sponsored for their complete education at LCA. They have about 20 kids on full scholarships. Sr. Lucy said they also have a lot of students who volunteer at Cor Unum.
2nd segment: Scot said this year’s Catholic Schools Week theme is Faith, Academics, Service. He said academics is hard to achieve. Fr. Paul said last year 61% of kids go on to Catholic high schools, while the rest go on to the good public schools in their area. The best public schools require an interview to get in and they are regional schools.
Sr. Lucy said the teachers try to know and appreciate each student for who they are, to know their gifts, and to teach them in the way they learn. They raise the bar, helping students to try to achieve more than they are if they can. They work with the parents. They evaluate their academic programs on a yearly basis. Part of the board focuses just on the curriculum. Every classroom now has a Smartboard. Fr. Paul said the Catholic Schools Foundation has been very generous with them and has given them a few extra grants, including the funds for the Smartboards.
Sr. Lucy said their program is based on the Massachusetts Frameworks, because they know if the students leave their school they will have to pass the MCAS. Scot asked if there is something in the pedagogy at LCA that gets better results. Fr. Paul said in 7th and 8th grade every kid has to do an oral presentation every week, which gives them an important life skill. He said one of the things that kids repeat about why they are different at LCA is that they do it the hard way; they don’t take the easy route.
Scot asked why LCA is able to get high achievement with fewer dollars than public schools. Fr. Paul said part of it is that the public school system has to educate special needs. But public schools in Lawrence spend $16,000 per pupil, while LCA spends $4,000. Money doesn’t solve the problems. The one thing LCA needs is more money for capital needs. They have all they need for academic excellence.
Sr. Lucy said what struck her in the interviews with the teachers applying to work at LCA was their faith. They wanted to work in an environment where they could live and work their faith and be able to talk to students about their faith. They have an inner commitment to loving and working with kids. Fr. Paul said there are teachers who would be happy to work with kids in public schools, but the system doesn’t allow them to get at the roots problems.
Scot noted that LCA has more religious teaching there than any other Catholic school in the Archdiocese. There are 6 religious sisters who have all been working in the schools for about 20 years. She doesn’t like to separate religious and lay teachers as they are all living the mission. Fr. Paul said these are real sisters, living the poverty and other evangelical counsels, giving inspiration and spiritual direction for the school. Sr. Lucy said many of the lay faculty have been there for 20 years. Some teachers leave for public schools and then want to come back. Fr. Paul pointed out that many of the teachers are sacrificing financially to teach there, trying to support their own families while serving their students. He said in the inner city, people can read motivations very easily. If someone was in it for the wrong reason, they know. If someone is doing it out of love, faith, and commitment, then they know.
Fr. Paul said the students are actively engaged in many service projects, including green community recycling, serving those in the military and so on. Sr. Lucy said they also have a program where the older students form as role models for the younger kids. Also high schools students who graduated from the schools come back to serve as homework helpers. They also plug them into the activities of the parishes.
The students come from Lawrence, Methuen, Andover, No Andover, Amesbury, Chelmsford, Dracut, Haverhill, Lowell, Medford, Salisbury, Tewksbury, Boston, and even the Salem NH, area. Many of them are from families that lived in Lawrence and they moved but have chosen to continue to attend LCA. Sr. Lucy said one of the reasons is that there is a welcoming spirit and they want to be part of the community. The students themselves have identified that as an identity of the school.
Fr. Paul said there are bad things going on in Lawrence and it’s a wonderful place to live because of the people in the community. If you can avoid the bad stuff, they love it. So when they leave, the school still has that wonderful community.
Scot asked Sr. Lucy how they help the kids stay safe outside of school. She said they get them to believe that they don’t need the gangs to stay safe. They give them a safe environment during the day. Fr. Paul when kids do get in trouble, they often come back to the parish or school or Cor Unum for a place to rebuild their lives because they are places of love when they have had no other experience of love in their lives.
Fr. Paul said everyone listening to the show should send all their money to LCA. They have three buildings on the campus that need renovation which is an $8 to $10 million capital need. They know from Cor Unum, which went from 0 dollars to being built, that when people hear the story they respond.
Fr. Paul said helping Catholic schools is a mission of the entire Catholic Church. Catholic education is the best kind of education for every kid.