By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 30, 2010
As Blessed Trinity and Our Lady of Mercy high schools begin a new school year in the fall of 2010, they are also reflecting on the 10 years of growth that brought each of the schools to where they are today.
Both established in 2000 as a result of the “Building the Church of Tomorrow” capital campaign started by Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue in 1997, BT and OLM have focused their efforts on helping young people become exemplary graduates by providing a strong academic curriculum blended with spiritual guidance, a long list of extracurricular activities and a house system that brings the entire community together.
The archdiocesan capital campaign had several objectives, and one was directed toward opening new Catholic schools. Five new schools opened as a result, including Queen of Angels School and Blessed Trinity High School, both in Roswell, Holy Redeemer School, Johns Creek, Our Lady of Victory School, Tyrone, and Our Lady of Mercy High School, Fayetteville.
Archbishop-emeritus Donoghue was present at a celebratory Mass at Our Lady of Mercy on Aug. 13, an event to honor those who had paved the way for the Fayetteville school and those who continue to make it a positive beacon of education and spirituality.
“This is one of the most reverent groups of high-schoolers you will ever see,” OLM principal Danny Dorsel told the parents and family members who gathered for the Mass.
The way the students, parents and faculty interacted following the Mass made the event seem more like a large family reunion. Hugs, smiles and laughter filled the space and alumni caught up with former teachers, students joked with each other and parents met other parents and teachers.
It is a type of feeling that both OLM and BT integrate into their academic programs. This is most evident through the house system in which both schools participate.
Based on the house system traditionally found in British schools, students are assigned to a “house,” which contains students from every high school grade level. Within each house are smaller groups—called families—that give students an opportunity to meet their classmates from the very beginning.
Blessed Trinity introduced a house system at the high school toward the end of the 2007 school year and started it in full swing the next fall. The system divides the school into eight houses by bringing the students together in small groups. The system is still fairly new in the United States, but schools that incorporate the program have found many positive effects on the school and its students.
In order to get the feel of how the house system worked, BT principal Frank Moore traveled to Louisville, Ky., in the fall of 2006 with the assistant principal, the school’s student activities director, an English teacher, and 10 representatives of the freshman, sophomore and junior classes to visit Trinity Catholic High School, a 1,400-student high school that has been using the system for seven years. Trinity High School is a model nationwide for Catholic high schools looking at the house system, according to BT administrators.
“Our purpose in starting the house system was to create a smaller community from the onset,” said Karen Hurley, director of student activities for BT, who leads the house program. “We have seen the benefits and how they are all jelling.”
“They love it. Parents love it,” said Hurley.
“I have been a student at BT since the initiation of the house system, and it has been exciting to witness its tremendous growth over the past years,” said Emily Hogan, a senior who is a member of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Woodstock. “Being a member and leader of Vianney House has allowed me to meet people from all different classes, not only my classmates. The house system promotes a fun sense of competition within BT, yet at the same time, brings us all together under a common identity.”
Blessed Trinity, built for 1,000 students, helped Our Lady of Mercy establish its house system, which works in much the same way on a smaller scale. OLM was built for 500 students.
“They were a tremendous help,” said Dorsel. “That is one of the great things about Catholic education: We’re all in this together.”
Students are randomly placed into houses—there are eight houses at BT and four at OLM—with each house comprised of freshmen through seniors and with students staying in the same house for their full four years. The exception is that siblings are placed in the same house.
Each has a faculty house director and mentors. House meetings take place a few times a semester. Student leadership usually consists of two senior captains and one junior, sophomore and freshman class leader, elected by their peers. These students form the student government.
“One thing that concerned us was whether there would be enough students who wanted to run for so many leadership positions,” said Moore. “We never had that many in any prior Student Council election. When Mrs. Hurley made the announcements encouraging students to run, over 100 students showed up to get the necessary forms. That is almost one in six of our freshman, sophomore and junior population. It is apparent that excitement about this system is growing.”
In addition to the students being divided into houses, each house is divided into five families of students across all grade levels who meet weekly with their family mentor.
In the meetings, families participate in discussion of school issues, standardized testing prep work, life skill work, school productions and more. The schools believe these meetings are the heart of the system, with older and younger students interacting and discussing topics of common interest, something not usually made available in schools.
“I really appreciate and love the house system,” said Mercy freshman Ally Anumudu. “As a freshman, I have grown close to more people in the school, especially in my house. Personally, I like how the house system brings us students together as one family.”
And like any good sibling rivalry, there is competition between the houses as well. Students can earn points for their house in many ways, including attendance at various athletic and fine arts events, participation in service projects, participation in tournaments such as chess, table tennis and trivia, making the honor roll, and Spirit Week participation, among others.
Each month the house with the most points earns the “House of the Month” title, and the points are also tallied at the end of the year for the coveted “House of the Year” designation.
“The house system has been wonderful because students, right when they walk in the door, belong to a group,” said Dorsel. “They get to meet seniors, juniors, sophomores.”
A strong spiritual foundation permeates all facets of the curriculum at BT and OLM. Whether it is theological discussion in class, an intimate gathering in each student’s respective house and/or family or part of an extracurricular activity, students leave these two high schools with a solid understanding of the Catholic faith and what it means to be a responsible person of faith in an increasingly secular society.
Spiritual activities range from school-wide Masses to service projects, all aimed at bringing the students together around the table of faith.
“I love the spiritual environment that Blessed Trinity promotes,” said Emily Hogan. “The accessibility of spiritual activities like school Masses, reconciliation and service projects have allowed me to embrace my faith on a whole new level. I have also loved becoming involved in the school’s service groups, especially Habitat for Humanity.”
The Blessed Trinity Habitat for Humanity chapter last year contributed nearly $7,000 to building homes in North Georgia and earthquake relief in Haiti. Students took part in building days in Milton and Atlanta. Over the summer, a group of students took part in a collegiate challenge build in Mobile, Ala., and this fall students are helping with a build in Cherokee County.
Service projects are an important part of each school’s curriculum. BT has a tradition of participating in a mission trip once a year with last year’s trip taking students to South Africa. Over 20 students traveled with chaperones to work on various projects near Johannesburg. Moore said many returned saying the experience was “life changing.”
Moore said this year students will be traveling to El Salvador for the annual mission trip and they also hope to start incorporating a local mission trip as well.
At Our Lady of Mercy, students are required to contribute two hours of Christian service per month beginning in August and ending in May, with the majority of the hours completed outside of school and outside of their home parish at designated organizations.
Mercy has fostered awareness of the respect for life teachings of the Catholic faith, sponsoring a pro-life club at the school and taking students to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., as well as local pro-life events.
The school also has a polyphonic, a capella choir, which sings the worship music composed in the ecumenical Taizé community in France. OLM also has a monthly Mass for the entire school, which has become the favorite event for many students.
“I greatly enjoy school-wide Masses,” said Mercy sophomore Alana Murphy. “They are so fulfilling and reviving of my week. I wouldn’t mind having it more than once a month.”
Rhonda Anderson, the chairperson for the school’s social studies program, also finds something special in the school-wide Masses.
“It presents the opportunity to be still and focus on Jesus, being led by music, Scripture reading, and the homily,” she said. “It allows a quiet time in the middle of the busy day to see teachers, staff and students clearly united as children of God praising and worshiping him. I like thinking that I share most aspects of faith with the students, and I want them to know that I consider my relationship with God and Jesus the most important of my life.”
Both schools also offer retreats for students throughout the year, giving them the opportunity to reflect on their lives and come back to school feeling spiritually refreshed. At Blessed Trinity, each class—freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior—has its own day of reflection. These retreats are aimed at helping students “explore their relationship with God, reflect on God’s presence in their lives, integrate spirituality into their daily life and discover what it means to live as a witness to their faith.”
OLM offers a student-led event called the “FLAME Retreat,” also focused on building and strengthening their relationship with God and with each other. FLAME “gives students a chance to take time out of their busy lives to form a closer relationship with God and their peers,” states the campus ministry website. The retreat is open to OLM students of all faiths.
Both schools are college preparatory academic programs accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Southern Association of Independent Schools.
Administrators are aware of the difficulties of sustaining a good school but happy with what has been brought about in the first 10 years of these two new Catholic high schools.
“I’ve worked in many schools over the years, and this is the best,” said Brian Marks, assistant principal for BT, which has reached its highest enrollment with more than 930 students. “There is a feel about this place. The students are happy.”
OLM also reached a record enrollment number this year with more than 300 students and continues to challenge its students with a thorough curriculum. Dorsel said the success of the school and its students is a collaborative effort.
“It’s not magic. It is a lot of hard work on the students’ part, the parents’ part and our part,” said Dorsel. “When we hire teachers, we hire excellent educators that are dedicated to the transfer of knowledge to students.”
Both schools have made an impact with their athletic programs.
Blessed Trinity has received 18 state championships in a variety of boys and girls sports in its first decade, as well as overall honors for the program and athletic director Ricky Turner. Our Lady of Mercy has earned six state championships, including three in a row by its boys cross country team.
Throughout the last 10 years, these two schools have steadily grown and have become well-known presences in their respective areas of metro Atlanta. With an emphasis on building a strong community and offering exceptional academics, BT and OLM continue to bring enrollment numbers up while remaining true to their original vision.
“In many ways, 10-year celebrations often go unnoticed in our busy lives. Consequently, a school celebrating a 10-year anniversary may also go unnoticed. Both Blessed Trinity Catholic High School and Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School have achieved successes not normally found in such ‘young’ school communities,” said Diane Starkovich, archdiocesan superintendant of schools.
“We are blessed to have dedicated teachers and staff at both of these archdiocesan high schools,” she continued. “We are blessed to have eager and talented students enrolled in both schools, and we are blessed to work with parents who desire a Catholic college-preparatory high school education for their children. Both schools posted significant enrollment gains this school year, which additionally supports the schools’ attempts to provide a college-preparatory education while providing students with formation in our faith. I extend heartfelt congratulations to these schools on their first decade of existence.”