St. Mary's School: New horizons, same values after 130 years

New Principal Jennifer Masten catches up with students during lunch time at St. Mary's School in Lee. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield is honoring the school on Wednesday, in celebration of the school's 130th anniversary.

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St. Mary's School 130th anniversary

LEE — The more things change, the more they stay the same. The adage, attributed to 19th-century writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, aptly describes St. Marys School in the 21st century. The parochial pre-kindergarten through Grade 8 school re-opened in September with five new teachers, a new principal and replaced student desktop computers with Chromebooks, a laptop with a Google-based operating system.

In addition to the core subjects, the Orchard Street campus offers classes in art, music, computers and foreign language. Extra-curricular activities include a drum and bugle corps and a variety of field trips.

"Throughout the past decades, I have witnessed the transition of the basic reading, writing and arithmetic approach to teaching to one that embraces the advantages of keeping up with technology, of creating an environment that is sensitive to cultural diversity, of studying and offering a variety of learning styles," said eighth-grade teacher, Polly Crosby.

Students in grades 5-8 now follow a middle school-like schedule, switching classrooms and seeing different teachers for almost every subject.

"It helps you to get to know the teachers more and they are focused on one subject," said seventh-grader John Covell.

The ability to change with the times, fend off financial hardship and stabilize enrollment while many other Catholic schools around St. Mary's have closed in recent years, hasn't gone unnoticed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

On Wednesday, the 130-year-old Catholic school — one of four left in Berkshire County — will be the guest of honor for the diocese's 2016 Catholic School Advancement Dinner in Chicopee.

Diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, Andrea Ciszewski, Franciscan Sister of St. Joseph, said St. Mary's, re-accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, is led by top-notch teachers and staff.

"The students are empowered to attain academic excellence while becoming cooperative learners, responsible citizens and dedicated leaders in an ever changing world," she said in prepared remarks.

New principal, Jennifer Masten, is quick to also heap praise on the students' families.

"If we didn't have such dedicated parents in the community, we'd be in the same boat," she said referring to the diocese's shuttered schools.

First year at the helm, Masten is in her 12th academic year at St. Mary's, having taught fourth grade from September 2005 until last June. As for the five new teachers, most are either alumni, have or had children attend the school.

"When you hire people that have a connection to the school, that really solidifies the school going forward," Masten said.

One of the new teachers is actually a returnee. Nancy Lotz was at St. Mary's from 1987 to 1990. She left to raise a family, got back into teaching three years ago and says she is grateful to be educating this year's fifth-graders.

"I'm back home — thank God — right where I belong," she said. "Here, we're allowed to teach students how to learn. Mine read 30 to 40 minutes a day in the classroom."

The original St. Mary's School building opened in 1886 on Academy Street, next to St. Mary's Church. In September 1957, a new brick and concrete structure, with a gymnasium and main office, opened on Orchard Street with an enrollment of 290 students. A kindergarten class was added in 1989, and a pre-K was established in 1999, after a school building project created a larger library and new science wing.

The original school building was saved from the wrecking ball in 1989, when local businessman Joseph Toole relocated the structure to Main Street, converting it into a bed and breakfast named the Chambery Inn.

Enrollment has steadily declined in the past 20 years, primarily due to the county's total population dropping off considerably. Since the mid-1990s, the student body has fallen from around 200 pupils to an average of 125 to 130 in recent years. Masten noted this year's enrollment has dipped to 118.

Yet, those 118 will get the kind of personal attention St. Mary's is known for according to Rebecca Abbott Dean, an alumna and parent of Ethan, who graduated in June. She also chairs the school's advisory board.

"Every student is recognized as an individual and encouraged to seek out the best in themselves and others," Dean said.