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Five Years On, High Marks for St. Columbkille-Boston College Partnership School

Boston College alumnus Eamonn Kelly, a science teacher at the St. Columbkille Partnership School. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Apr. 26, 2012

Six years ago, St. Columbkille School in Brighton was in trouble.

Its enrollment was about 200 students and showed little signs of improving, and concerns abounded over the school’s academic resources and student services support. There was considerable doubt as to whether St. Columbkille — the last Catholic elementary school in Brighton — would survive.

But that was the year Boston College, along with the St. Columbkille Parish and the Archdiocese of Boston, launched a unique partnership that has transformed St. Columbkille. Today, five years after its official opening, the pre-K to grade 8 school — now known as St. Columbkille Partnership School — is being held up as a model turnaround story for struggling Catholic schools and is poised to expand in order to meet rapidly increasing demand.   

Currently, the school enrolls nearly 350 children, mostly from the Allston and Brighton neighborhoods. In fact, St. Columbkille is experiencing an enrollment boom, particularly in the early grades, and has a waiting list, said William Gartside, who became head of school in 2010.

At the other end of the grade spectrum, this year five students gained entrance to Boston Latin School at the highly competitive 9th-grade level and five students were accepted to Boston College High School.

“We are winning over parents on the critical issues of academic excellence, faith formation and a sense of community, of which respect and discipline are the big pieces,” said Gartside, who joined the school after a distinguished career at BC High.

The school has benefitted from financial and technical support from Boston College, which has funded upgrades to facilities, technology and materials. Teachers and students use Smartboards, desktop computers and laptops across all grades.

The Lynch School of Education has played a leading role by supplying a steady stream of student teachers, giving St. Columbkille’s teachers the opportunity to earn master’s degrees at no cost, and assisting with upgrades to the curriculum and support services.

The school sees a steady stream of BC undergraduate volunteers, including participants in the 4Boston and Emerging Leaders programs, Theatre Department students — who have created an after-school drama program — and BC’s hockey and basketball teams, which visit regularly to mentor students, said Gartside.

In addition, BC has hosted a successful summer day camp, led by St. Columbkille teachers, which offers approximately 200 children between the ages three and 12 a program of enrichment activities, recreation and arts.

“The partnership with the University has driven home the issues of quality and excellence,” said Gartside. “People seek you out when they realize that you and your partners are committed to academic excellence.”

When the partnership was established, it represented a new governance model, one never used before in a Catholic school in America. The goal was to create a new national model for excellence in Catholic elementary education. Last month, when a team of researchers released the first set of national standards for the operation of effective Catholic schools, St. Columbkille’s was held up as a model for its vibrant Catholic identity, sound management and outstanding curriculum.

The chairman of the school’s board of trustees, Peter McLaughlin, ’59, a fellow at BC’s Roche Center for Catholic Education, said the success of the partnership school leaves him confident that Catholic schools in need of help have an example that can be followed and replicated.

“The thought at first was that we create a school that combines best practices in educational leadership, academic practice, student development and religious formation,” McLaughlin said. “If you do that and create a flagship Catholic school, you offer a model of excellence for others. What we are doing here is exportable.”

But however much of an impression St. Columbkille has made nationally, its local impact is perhaps even more profound. The revitalized school has served as an inspiration to members of the St. Columbkille Parish, said pastor Rev. Msgr. William P. Fay.

“It’s a tremendous thing that’s happening,” said Msgr. Fay. “There’s a wonderful connection between the parish and the school and there always has been. There’s a deep connection between the school and the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton, which are principally where our students come from.”