In one fell swoop, Catholic education ceased to exist on the North Fork.
On March 12, 2018, the Diocese of Rockville Centre announced the closures of Bishop McGann-Mercy High School and St. Isidore School, both in Riverhead, and Our Lady of Mercy Regional School in Cutchogue.
Students, families and staffers were devastated.
But plans were already in the works to open a Pre-K through 8 school — called St. John Paul II Regional School — in the same building that housed St. Isidore School since 1962.
“People didn’t think we would make it,” said the school’s smiling principal, Mrs. Abbey Swiatkowski.
Now in its fifth school year, St. John Paul II isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving.
Enrollment has nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic, and the faculty in Riverhead recently announced its middle schoolers now have a building of their own next door.
The summer months were spent renovating the new space, as well as updating the school’s preschool centers in all the freed-up space that the middle school building expansion provided.
Going into the 2018-19 school year, the Diocese pumped about $2 million into updating the former St. Isidore building on Marcy Avenue, in the Polish Town section of Riverhead.
This included much-needed infrastructure improvement, as well as new PA and camera surveillance systems, a high-speed WIFI network, and other upgrades.
Enrollment was hovering around 110 until COVID hit, then it jumped to 195, mostly due to a range of issues, both personal and logistical, that parents were having with the public schools.
Kay Sapio, the school’s business manager and director of student information. said enrolling all those incoming students made for a “busy summer” in 2020. “Especially toward the end.”
“The pandemic definitely helped,” she said. “It put us on the map.”
Most students hail from Riverhead and east on the North Fork, but some come from the South Fork and as far west as the Longwood School District.
(To qualify for busing, a student’s family has to live within 15 miles.)
350 students is ideal.
And St. John Paul II is ready to scale.
“This is our fifth year and we finally feel as if we can explore our options,” Swiatkowski said.
The future is now
St. John Paul II Regional School is no longer new.
And there are no more COVID policies to follow or adhere to.
“We no longer have to worry about losing another year of not having the school the way we want; set up for absolute success in the best interest of our students,” Swiatkowski said.
School administrators got the green light earlier this summer to turn a former convent on the campus into a middle school for their 6 – 8 students.
That also freed up space in the main building to expand the school’s Pre-K, specials and other programs, without encroaching on the cafeteria/auditorium space.
Phil Lombardi, a former Mercy guidance counselor who had taken a public school job in that same role after Mercy was closed, has been named the middle school director.
There are currently 44 middle school students at St. John Paul II.
“They’re a little bit more mature and, academically, they have progressed further from the younger students,” Lombardi explained. “They’re just needs to be some separation as we begin to prepare them for high school and the higher levels.”
And having their own building helps.
“With the separate building we can change classes, provide electives,” he added.
The building aside, Swiatkowski and her team have hired a former Mercy science teacher now in her 25th year of teaching. Their middle school math teacher joined mid-last year. They also brought on a new ELA teacher. All of them are Regents-certified.
The class sizes for the middle schoolers max out at 12, except for religion class.
“It’s just due to the nature of the building, and allows teachers to provide more one-on one learning within their classrooms,” she said.
‘A life calling’
Maintaining a Catholic school on Long Island is tough, especially during any sort of teacher shortage where public school districts are offering much higher compensation.
And gone are the days when nuns ran the schools without pay.
Swiatkowski says running a successful Catholic school is only possible thanks to the dedication of school teachers such as kindergarten teacher Holly Haas — now in her 28th year in Catholic education — who simply love everything about it.
“There’s something special about Catholic education and the people that work in Catholic education,” she said. “its a commitment.
“It’s not a job, it’s a life calling. That’s really how I feel.”
Very many Catholic educators feel the same.
“Our teachers want to be here; they’re very true to their faith, which they can also bring into the classroom,” Swiatkowski said. “.We infuse our faith into everything we do and have created a nurturing family environment.”
“We can offer something a lot more than the public schools — and it’s the same education,” she continued. “We have to follow all the same New York State standards, but with faith-based instruction it’s much more powerful.”
St. John Paul II Regional School is operated by a Regional Pastor Board made up of four East End pastors. Under the pastors’ constant support and guidance, Swiatkowski and her team have been able to execute the new vision for the middle school building and preschool center.
She also said the team in Riverhead owe a debt of gratitude to what’s called The Morning Star Initiative, run by the Marianist brothers of Chaminade High School in Mineola.
The group has made it a mission to help preserve Catholic education in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, whose administrative territory covers Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island.
“They believed in our school, they supported our school,” she said.
“They have helped give us the resources to make it through COVID and beyond.”
Top photos: ELA teacher Mrs. Goodale in one of the new middle school building classrooms.