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Some single-gender Catholic schools are flourishing while others struggle

Students walked the halls between classes at Malden Catholic High School.
Students walked the halls between classes at Malden Catholic High School.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

MALDEN — For 75 years, Malden Catholic High School has sought to nurture thousands of boys on their journey to manhood, instilling in them a strong work ethic and a deep faith while encouraging them to seek positive leadership roles.

But the school will move in a new direction in September 2018: It plans to open an all-girl division and has purchased property across the street to build a school for them. Officials say they hope to fill a void on the North Shore, which lacks any all-girl Catholic schools.

“We really do believe this will offer the best of both worlds for our families and students,” said Thomas Doherty, the school’s president, noting students will benefit from a single-gender education while having the opportunity to interact in extracurricular activities.

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Across Greater Boston, single-gender Catholic schools are seeking ways to increase their presence as overall interest in Catholic schools is waning nationwide and the number of school-age children in Massachusetts decreases.

Expansions like those being undertaken at Malden Catholic have helped lift overall enrollment at the 15 single-gender Catholic schools in the Boston area to 7,825 students this past school year, an increase of 260 students since fall 2012, according to the Archdiocese of Boston.

This, even as overall enrollment in the archdiocese’s schools, including all grades, has declined by nearly 4,000 students over the same time period, to 37,547.

Many of the single-gender schools that are expanding say they are doing so in response to requests from families for additional opportunities and say their financial health is sound. For instance, two years ago the popular St. John’s Prep in Danvers added a middle school program, and the once all-boy Bellesini Academy in Lawrence opened a girls division.

But the broad numbers conceal enrollment problems at specific schools, as this past school year demonstrated. Last August, as students were preparing to return to classes, the last all-girl Catholic school in Boston, Elizabeth Seton Academy, abruptly closed its doors.

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Then this spring, Boston College High School, the all-boys academic and athletic powerhouse, revealed it was struggling with declining applications, sparking heated speculation that some trustees were plotting to go coed. This, in turn, sent a shiver of fear through the region’s all-girl Catholic schools that a coed BC High could drive them out of business.

The controversy led to an overhaul of trustee membership at the Dorchester school.

Father Joe O’Keefe, a national expert on Catholic education, described the state of single-gender Catholic schools as somewhat fragile, like their coed counterparts, nationwide.

“The draw of sending kids to a Catholic school is not as strong as it was 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “If you are not a church-goer, it’s not as important.”

Consequently, he said, a lot of parochial elementary schools have closed, which is problematic for many single-gender Catholic schools, the vast majority of which are high schools and have long relied on the parochial elementary schools as a source of new students.

For many families in Massachusetts, Catholic schools are one of the few options for a single-gender education, given that state law forbids public schools from denying any student enrollment based on gender.

Proponents of single-sex education say that boys and girls focus better in class when they are segregated by gender because they are not trying to impress the opposite sex by joking around or appearing less smart in class.

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They also say boys and girls respond more favorably to different learning styles. For instance, boys tend to do better academically with classroom activities that allow them to move around and release their fidgety energy, while girls do well working in small groups.

But critics argue separating boys and girls can reinforce stereotypes and eventually can make it more difficult for them to work with the opposite sex.

Bellesini Academy , which serves 105 students in grades 5 to 8, is attempting to bridge that divide, using an approach similar to one that Malden Catholic is now embracing. While the genders are taught separately, the two occasionally come together for some activities, such as reading discussion groups or science projects, to show how each might bring a different perspective to the subject and to foster an appreciation for one another.

The school, which is tuition-free and accepts only low-income students, also mixes boys and girls for recess, lunch, and some extracurricular activities.

“The single-gender approach has been successful, but for the majority of our students, they leave here and go on to coed schools, and I think they should learn to how interact with one another,” said Julie DiFilippo, head of school.

Malden Catholic is now discussing what activities might go coed when it opens its girls division a year from September. Officials say they are starting a girls division in response to parents who are seeking a single-gender environment for their daughters.

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Eamonn Casey, center, helped students Dominic Odoguardi, left, and Kirill Mastracola, right, during a theology class at Malden Catholic High School.
Eamonn Casey, center, helped students Dominic Odoguardi, left, and Kirill Mastracola, right, during a theology class at Malden Catholic High School.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Several male students said they liked the idea of adding girls, especially since they would be in a separate program. That arrangement, they said, should enable the school to continue its decades-old practice of fostering lifetime bonds among its male students, while also providing them with new opportunities to participate in some coed programs after school.

“I think it will be a little bit of an adjustment, but it won’t be too major because we have to get used to competing with women in the workforce when we get jobs after college,” said Joe Rivers, 15, a freshman.

Last September, in an attempt to fill a void on the North Shore, the Academy at Penguin Hall opened in Wenham with about 60 young women attending class in an 88-year-old stone manor once occupied by the Sisters of Notre Dame; it later housed an advertising agency. (The school is using the original name of the manor, which was inspired by a pair of bronze penguins that grace the front entrance.)

The high school bills itself as “rooted in the Catholic tradition of education,” helping its students to develop intellectually, spiritually, physically, and creatively. But the academy is not officially Catholic, a designation issued by the archdiocese only after a rigorous review of curriculum, finances, and other components.

The only official all-girl Catholic high school program north of Boston is in Tyngsborough, the Academy of Notre Dame, which educates girls in preschool through grade 12 and is about 40 miles away from Wenham.

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Molly Martins, the president of Penguin Hall and one of its founders, said she is hoping her school can provide students with a moral compass. The academy, which aims to eventually serve 400 girls, begins each day with a prayer or moment of reflection.

Many of the academy’s parents have sons at St. John’s Prep, an all-boys Catholic school in nearby Danvers. Julie Sullivan of Topsfield, whose son just graduated from St. John’s, had long wanted a similar setting for her 16-year-old twin daughters. “It was such a blessing when it opened,” Sullivan said. “I just feel single-sex schools combined with a faith-based component allow the faculty and administration to educate the whole person, not just a student’s intellect.”

On a recent morning in an oak-paneled library at Penguin Hall, four girls crammed for final exams around a table as sunshine filtered through the French-pane windows. They said they liked how the school fosters a sisterhood.

“It’s such an empowering environment,” said Kathryn Ward, 17, of North Reading. “I forget there aren’t guys in my classes.”

Students studied for finals inside the library at The Academy at Penguin Hall.
Students studied for finals inside the library at The Academy at Penguin Hall. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.