Merger proves fruitful for Catholic schools

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St. Francis–St. Hedwig School.

NAUGATUCK — One year ago, Naugatuck’s only two Catholic schools faced a possible demise. Since the schools merged, however, the year-old St. Francis–St. Hedwig School is flourishing in enrollment and its staff has plans for growth.

“Merging the two schools has made us very strong,” St. Francis-St. Hedwig School Principal John Salatto said. “As enrollment gets better, we will continue to get stronger.”

Last year, Naugatuck’s only Catholic schools, St. Francis of Assisi School and St. Hedwig School, merged to accommodate decreasing enrollments and financial deficits. After a debate on the name, the combined institution was christened St. Francis–St. Hedwig School. It is housed in the former St. Francis building on Church Street because it is larger and has a gym, a science lab, and a separate cafeteria — facilities that St. Hedwig lacked.

“St. Hedwig was smaller in size and had deep roots in the community,” Salatto said. “There was a similar situation at St. Francis, but it’s bigger, it’s located downtown, and it’s more integrated with the community.”

Before the schools merged, it was anticipated that the combined school would need an enrollment of 218 students to break even. The school has a current enrollment of 228 and, according to Salatto, is “finishing in the black” financially.

Students and teachers transitioned well into the merged school environment, Salatto said, because the two former schools had similar curricula and “more similarities than differences” in teaching methods.

“The cultures were different,” Salatto said. “We absorbed the culture from St. Francis and also from St. Hedwig. As we head into a new year, we’re on solid ground.”

School officials are planning to grow on the success of the past year.

For the upcoming school year, school officials plan to purchase an array of technology for the classrooms, including interactive white boards, computers, and laptops.

As the merger became imminent, some parents showed concern that students from St. Hedwig School would be outsiders in a merged school housed in the St. Francis facility but Salatto and members of the Home and School Association say the students have adapted well.

“The kids gravitated toward each other perfectly,” Salatto said, adding that many students already knew each other from outside activities and school functions. “The kids were glad to be with their friends from across town.”

Kendra Tompkins, president of the St. Francis–St. Hedwig Home and School Association, said her first grade son Gregory has adjusted well to the transition as a former St. Hedwig student.

“The other night for homework, we had to write what was best about first grade,” Tompkins said. “He said that he made a lot of new friends.”

Tompkins said the merger was initially “scary” but that she had faith in the abilities of the staff. “It’s the staff that makes a school go round and the staff is excellent,” she said.

Christina Leahy, a member of the Home and School Association, has a son in kindergarten who attended St. Hedwig before the merger and currently attends St. Francis–St. Hedwig School. Leahy attended St. Hedwig through fifth grade herself.

“I think it’s been a great year,” Leahy said. “The teachers are great and I love how family-oriented the school is. The parents are dedicated, the staff is awesome and [the students] really do get a great education.”

With the school, the Home and School Association has established an after school program where kids can participate in organized physical activities and plan on instituting an after school art program soon.

“Right now we’re at the point of … developing our identity and culture,” Salatto said. “The merger issues are long behind us and things are looking bright.”