Catholic school supporters rally at Statehouse

BOSTON -- Catholic teachers, administrators, parents and students from throughout the commonwealth gathered at the Statehouse March 21 to advance the cause of Catholic education in Massachusetts.

The Catholic Schools Advocacy Day is an annual event organized by the Parents Alliance for Catholic Education (PACE).

Before going on to meet with individual legislators, the group rallied in the Great Hall of the Statehouse where they heard addresses by Catholic school supporters including several legislators.

In his keynote address, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, a graduate of St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, said government and Catholic schools have a collaborative interest in working together.

“The resounding, ever-present need is for a well-trained, well-educated work force,” he added.

Legislators should help students, no matter what school they attend. Catholic schools with 80,000 students in the state, teach their pupils character and educate them spiritually, he added.

Berna Mann, executive director of PACE, thanked Murray and said PACE looks forward to working with Gov. Deval Patrick on several issues facing Catholic schools.

Catholic school students should have access to their fair share of government education program services and materials, she said.

PACE supports Catholic schools receiving funding for school nurses, early education and after-school programs. The organization also wants Catholic students to be able to qualify for the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship, which provides full tuition for four years at the University of Massachusetts, the seven state colleges and 15 community colleges, she said.

Those 80,000 Catholic school students in 223 schools across the state save taxpayers $1 to $2 billion annually, she added.

Catholic school students also participated in the advocacy day. Children’s choirs from St. Pius V Elementary School in Lynn and Holy Name of Jesus School in Chicopee performed for those gathered.

A senior at Boston’s Cathedral High School, Dixon Francois, addressed the crowd, saying that his Catholic education has given him both an academic and a moral education. A lifetime in Catholic school has prepared him for higher learning, and he has applied to several private colleges, he said.

“Catholic schools help break the cycle of poverty for their students,” he said.

Steve Perla, president of PACE’s board of trustees and superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Worchester, said that parents are the best advocates on behalf of their children.

“I can promise you that with your support we can continue to make great strides,” he told the parents.

Each legislator who spoke was introduced by a Catholic school parent from their district.

Every family should have the opportunity to choose the education that is best for their children, said Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset, co-chair of the joint committee on education.

“If we don’t provide the very best for students now, we can’t expect them to be the very best in the future,” she said.

Sen. Thomas McGee, D-Lynn, agreed.

McGee and his wife have twin sons who are third graders at Sacred Heart School in Lynn.

“My children have really flourished at the school, and they really enjoy it there,” he said.

The boys also participate in Sacred Heart’s after-school program since McGee and his wife both work in Boston. Students across the state should have the opportunity for accessible and affordable after-school programs, he said.

Participants were encouraged by the legislators to meet personally with their elected officials at the end of the event.

Sen. Robert Antonioni, D-Leominster, told Catholic school advocates not to be shy and let their legislators know that their schools have needs.

“All of you matter. All of you count. You are members of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” he said.

Rep. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, encouraged the Catholic school students to speak up when visiting their representatives.

“Tell them why you love your school,” she said.

Debbie Smith, development director at St. Mary’s Primary School in Taunton, told The Pilot that she has attended the Catholic Schools Advocacy Day for many years.

It is important to tell legislators that Catholic schools save taxpayers money, she said. Catholic schools simply want the same opportunities for their students as public school children already have.

Smith praised the 14-year history of PACE.

“They’ve done a great job,” she said. “We’ve come leaps and bounds for Catholic education.”