The Notre Dame Education Center, a charity founded by nuns, forged an unusual partnership with a developer in the hopes of continuing its mission amid a rapid rise in South Boston real estate prices.
A year after buying the center’s quarter-acre Old Colony Avenue property for $4.5 million, the nonprofit’s good standing in the neighborhood helped it win city approval for a controversial six-story apartment building on the site. The school would survive, by operating out of one floor.
But things have soured since Notre Dame started preparing to close its building for two years during construction, and to move some of its classes to temporary spaces.
First, the Notre Dame board decided to suspend the school’s English-as-a-second-language and adult basic education classes for roughly 400-plus students, citing insufficient funding.About 15 full- and part-time teachers would lose their jobs as a result, including two nuns from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
Then the situation worsened in late May when those teachers were laid off with three weeks of classes remaining. Last week, students and teachers were surprised to find themselves locked out of the school. They ended up holding classes in space donated by the Ironworkers Local 7 across the street.
Kirsten Konefal is among those who are continuing to teach.
“They didn’t have the money,” Konefal said of Notre Dame. “They didn’t have the alternative location that they promised they would . . . All I want to do is teach my class.”
Mary Rose Durante, executive director at the Notre Dame center, said she has found temporary space to continue the center’s youth education and workforce readiness classes. She said she hopes to revive the suspended English and adult basic education classes in some form once the organization has enough funding.
Everyone who lost their jobs was still paid through June 14, the date the classes were supposed to end, Durante said.
The school doesn’t charge for most of its classes, relying heavily on subsidies from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to fund its programs. Notre Dame received $878,000 in state funds for in-person education in this fiscal year, according to the state agency.
The center had been scheduled to receive another $840,000 in the fiscal year that starts in July. But that disbursement is now apparently in jeopardy because of the chaos at the school. A spokeswoman said the state agency is preparing to go out to bid again to find a school that can provide similar services.
One possibility for reviving the classes has been put forth by Bob Monahan, executive director at the nearby Julie’s Family Learning Program.
He said he wants his nonprofit to carry on the work that Notre Dame had done.
Monahan said Julie’s already shares in a portion of Notre Dame’s state funding, and is in a position to provide a smooth transition. Julie’s and Notre Dame also share some history — both were founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and are remaining vestiges of the order in South Boston after Cardinal Cushing High School on West Broadway closed in 1992.
Durante noted that Notre Dame’s mission of providing educational services to the neighborhood will remain intact through the transition, and continue after its new 10,000-square-foot home opens in two years, even if many of the classes are not revived. An eight-person staff remains, Durante said, and she expects the school site will be transferred to the developer this month so construction can begin on the apartment complex, which will include 49 units.
At-large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George said city and state leaders will take an active role in helping ensure the displaced programs can continue. “There’s a role for us to play in thinking about the most appropriate landing spot,” she said.
The turn of events has been confusing for many of Notre Dame’s students — particularly those who don’t speak English well — and its volunteers.
“Clearly, something went very wrong from what the stated plan was,” said Theresa Bonanno, a South Boston resident who volunteers at the school. “Precipitously closing the program without notice to the teachers or students three weeks before the end of school, this is not the way it should have happened.”