By John Lynds
East Boston Central Catholic School (EBCCS) Principal Robert Casaletto knew he had some very big shoes to fill once longtime principal and educator Maryann Manfredonia stepped down at the end of the 2017 school year.
“She (Manfredonia) was my second grade teacher,” said Casaletto. “To go to school and then become a teacher here I wasn’t sure it was the right move. My heart has always been in the classroom. But when she came to me and said she wanted to know that the school would be left in good hands how do you say ‘no’ to that?”
Casaletto said he was convinced when Manfredonia made a strong case that someone from the outside may not guide the school down the same path that has made it a success.
“So I took the position,” he said with a smile.
There is no denying Casaletto’s strong roots at EBCCS. Growing up on London Street right near the school, Casaletto attended and graduated from EBCCS before heading to Savio Prep for high school. He completed his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Boston University, but his career took a turn when he decided to go back to school for his Master’s Degree.
“Twenty two years ago I was getting my Master’s from Lesley College in Education, and came back to Central Catholic to do my student teaching in fifth grade,” said Casaletto. “At the end of the year, the sixth grade teacher left for maternity leave, and decided not to return to the school because she wanted to stay home with her newborn. I graduated with my Master’s that August in an accelerated program and walk right into the school as a teacher.”
And the rest as they say is history.
Casaletto takes over the reigns of the school at a critical junction in EBCCS’s history. There was a time in Eastie’s not so distant past when there were three Catholic Schools that served the needs of the community. If you lived up the ‘Heights’ you went to St. Lazarus. If you lived in Harbor View, St. Mary’s Parish or Eagle Hill you went to St. Mary’s. If you lived in Jeffries Point or Maverick Square you went to EBCCS.
However, the Catholic Church closed St. Lazarus in the early 1990s ,and then St. Mary’s in the mid 2000s, leaving EBCCS as the only game in town. While being the only Catholic School in the neighborhood should have been a boon for enrollment, a few factors were at play that made EBCCS numbers not as solid as they could be.
First, the addition of two Charter Schools, Excel Academy and the Edward Brooke, added two more options for families in Eastie, and the surrounding neighborhoods.
“We are not losing as many kids to the charter schools as one would think,” said Casaletto. “We may have lost three students to the fifth grade at Excel last year, but I look at it as we didn’t gain any students either.”
Casaletto explained that the addition of two more school options for parents looking for an alternative to traditional public school is what hurts a place like EBCCS.
“If we got five, maybe 10 percent of the kids going to either Excel or the Brooke every year we’d be golden” he said. “Now your looking at an enrollment of over 300 students in the school.”
The school population now hoovers just under 200 students. Casaletto said 225 students would be a nice comfortable number and 260 students would be ideal.
“When I first started teaching here I had over 30 students in my class,” he said. “That was the norm even when I went to school here.”
The second factor is the gentrification of Eastie. Casaletto said the school has had a large Latino student population, a group that has been historically low-income in the neighborhood but come from a strong Catholic faith base. Now the dynamic has shifted.
“We are hearing from a lot parents that rise in rents are a struggle,” said Casaletto. “Around here now a three bedroom apartment can be anywhere from $2,500 per month to $3,000 per month. Most of our parents need larger portents to house their families but it’s a choice now between paying for rent or paying for tuition and a totally understand the decision to chose rent.”
However, with all the new development happening in Eastie, Casaletto hopes EBCCS can start attracting newer families to the school.
“I hope that is what happens,” he said. “There are going to be people moving here with one or two children, and are looking for a solid education.”
The solid education at EBCCS is what Casaletto said sets the school apart.
Last year the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) gave its seal of approval to EBCCS. The NEASC, the country’s oldest accreditation association serving more than 2,000 public and independent schools, gave its coveted accreditation to Eastie’s sole parochial school. This was EBCCS’s second accreditation from the NEASC, the first occurring a decade ago. According to their report on EBCCS, the NEASC wrote that the school met or exceeded expectations. The schools greatest strengths were its mission, admissions, program and experience of students as well as resources, early childhood education, faculty and health and safety.
“Our students that go on to East Boston High are mostly all in Advanced Placement classes,” said Casaletto. “Other students receive scholarships to some of the best private schools in the city.”
Casaletto said what is also misleading is the percentage of EBCCS students that make it into one of Boston’s prestigious test school like Boston Latin. Many parents in Boston, after paying for private education for several years, hope for a respite during middle and high school before their son or daughter starts college and tuition starts back up again. Many believe a Catholic education in elementary and middle school is sending their child on a trajectory to a Catholic High School education, and tuition that can be upwards of $20,000 per year.
However, Casaletto said many of the students at EBCCS that want to go to schools like Boston Latin end up doing so.
“For example last year, there were 16 students in the sixth grade and only half were East Boston residents,” explained Casaletto. “So only eight students were eligible to take the exam for the test schools. I believe only two students out of the eight who were eligible took the exam and one of those students got in, and is currently at Boston Latin. So while it looks like only 1 out of 16 are getting into exam schools it is more like 50 percent of the kids that took the exam got in because we have students from Chelsea, Winthrop, Everett that can’t take the test anyway.”
In the end Casaletto said he’s put EBCCS’s curriculum against any other school.
“We’ve made some great strides,” said Casaletto. In fact the school just added a new standardized test that tracks a students progress and learning capabilities throughout the year and is a private school equivalent of sorts of the state’s MCAS exam. “Public schools or charter schools may teach the same thing like math or science in a different way the foundation for learning and success academically is just as strong at EBCCS,” he said.