Mount investing $1.3 million in improvements this summer

Mount investing $1.3 million in improvements this summer

Matt Lamarsh, of Deslandes Construction of Warwick, hammers a piece of trim for the new windows in the four classrooms being renovated at Mount St. Charles Academy. Two years ago, Mount fully renovated the entire third floor of classrooms; this work continues the effort. (Valley Breeze photos by Tom Ward)
Despite layoffs, foundation solid; 6th grade in works

WOONSOCKET - Contrary to recent news reports that declining enrollment has put the school in poor fiscal condition, Mount St. Charles Academy President Herve Richer said this week that recent investments in the facility show that the Catholic high school is preparing for a bright future.

And in fall of 2015, he said, the school will expand its programming to include 6th-graders.

"Like many Catholic schools, we're suffering from some decrease in enrollment, but we're adjusting to maintain our stability," said Richer.

His statement comes in response to recent reports that Mount had laid off more than a dozen teachers this year, and that enrollment is declining at a rate not felt by many of the area's other private Catholic schools.

The stories, Richer said, were not entirely accurate.

The school did lay off some teachers: five have been told they will not be returning in the 2015 school year. One teacher also left voluntarily and another two opted to retire this year. Two additional teachers were reduced to part-time hours.

The staffing adjustments, Richer said, were made to accommodate enrollment levels that saw a decrease when the state and national economy stalled, but have remained stable over the past four years.

"Six hundred fifty to 700 is our new normal," Richer said of the student population, which is still served by some 80 employees including teachers and support staff.

"None of that affects any of our programs," he added. "Mount is in firm financial condition. If you look at the projects we're investing in, you can see we're preparing for a future."

In the past four years, Mount has seen complete renovation of much of its classroom space. The school has added new technology to its science labs, rebuilt the freshman/sophomore locker-room, added a sprinkler system to the Brother Adelard hockey arena, replaced the stairs leading from the upper campus to the arena, and converted the school's heating system to natural gas. In 2013, leaders added six new tennis courts across Logee Street to its list of amenities.

This summer alone, officials will invest another $1.3 million in the 90-year-old school, including replacement of the upper portion of the enormous granite staircase at the front of the building and major upgrades to the entryway more commonly used on the Logee Street side of the building. The improvements to the entry will address one long-standing issue with the building: It faces the wrong direction. Built in 1924 and designed by famed city architect Walter Fontaine, the school, and its stately 20-step granite staircase, once faced Bennett Street and looked over Woonsocket from its hilltop location in the Bernon district.

As the city grew, the through traffic on Bennett began to pose a danger for students, and eventually school administrators petitioned Woonsocket leaders to have the road closed off.

Their request was granted, and the address of the academy was changed to Logee Street. Students and guests began using a small, unassuming doorway at the back of the building near the new drop-off area.

The front facade is now viewed only by visitors who drive around the building or park in the back lot.

"We can't turn the building around," Richer said with a laugh.

Instead, the small door that has served as the unofficial primary entrance for years is getting major upgrades, with double doors, a closed in vestibule where students waiting to be picked up can escape inclement weather, and a canopied awning.

In back, meanwhile, the granite staircase has been demolished and is being replaced. The original steps, Richer said, could not be reused because the foundation had begun to crack and could not be renovated to comply with modern building codes.

At the school's ice hockey arena this summer, the roof has been replaced and insulation has been added.

One-half of the second floor classrooms are now undergoing a full reconstruction, and will be upgraded to match improvements made on the third floor in 2011 and 2012. Four classrooms and an office are currently getting a complete makeover, with floor-to-ceiling renovations. Rooms have been gutted and stripped to the frame so that new windows, flooring, lighting, and furniture can be added, while drop ceilings are being removed from the window areas to add light.

The remaining classrooms on the second floor, Richer said, will be finished next summer.

Deslandes Construction of Warwick is performing most of the work, with the exception of the arena roof, which is being done by Weathershield, Inc. of Milford, Mass.

The work is part of an ongoing effort to upgrade the academy. It began when the gymnasium was built in 1999 and the school - which historically enrolled around 700 students - the same number it has right now, added classroom space to increase capacity.

"The gym was our first major renovation since the school opened in 1924," said Richer. "We've been going at it every year since."

The work has all been financed through the school's annual fund, as well as the yearly walkathon and auction, with the exception of one classroom, which was sponsored by the Pointon family in memory of Henry S. Pointon, a graduate of the Class of 1944.

The current tuition at the academy is $11,600 a year for 7th- and 8th-graders and $12,600 for 9th- through 12th-graders.

"Our tuition is pretty much average for Catholic schools in the area," Richer said.

Few valid comparisons can be drawn, however, between Mount and Bishop Feehan in Attleboro, where tuition is somewhat less, or LaSalle Academy, which is located in a far more populated area.

"The fact that they (LaSalle) are in Providence as opposed to Woonsocket makes a difference," Richer said.

All of the private schools, Richer said, have seen some decline in enrollment.

"The waiting lists (of 10 years ago) don't exist anymore," he said.

Richer says the school has been steadily enrolling around 125-130 new students each year for the past four years, down from a high of around 185 annually. With 182 seniors, Richer said the Class of 2014 was the school's last large graduating class for the foreseeable future. "It's not uncommon for a school to go through something like this," Richer said. "It was time (for the personnel cuts). It's just good business. And if we maintain enrollment where it is there should be no need for more layoffs."

Workmen with Morgan & Son Masonry, of Coventry, were hard at work last week building a new student entry way on the Logee Street side of Mount St. Charles Academy. Last year, the parking lot for the school was completely replaced, and new tennis courts added.
The upper staircase at Mount St. Charles Academy has ben removed and is ready for replacement later this summer.
Bryan Leach, of Deslandes Construction of Warwick, fits a piece of trim on the new windows in the four classrooms being completely renovated at Mount St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket. Two years ago, Mount fully renovated the entire third floor of classrooms; this work continues the effort.
Bryan Leach, of Deslandes Construction of Warwick, measures for the installation of new windows in the four classrooms being completely renovated at Mount St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket.