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All-girl Catholic schools are a study in success

Our Lady of Mercy Academy, operated in Syosset by the Sisters of Mercy, opened in 1928 with just seven students. Today, as it celebrates its 90th anniversary, the school has more than 400 students and what administrators call a promising future. On Thursday, May 24, 2018, students and faculty spoke about how the school strengthens their faith and how they are thriving in an all-girl environment. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Mary “Mickey” Deegan had been raised in 10 different foster homes in Queens that she describes as “horrible” when — as she neared the end of 8th grade — a parish priest offered to send her to Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset.

The experience at the all-girls school, which at the time had boarders, turned her life around. When Deegan graduated in 1952, she was president of the senior class, the student council and the Catholic Action Club, and was voted most popular.

“It was a miracle,” said Deegan, 84, of Deer Park. “Our Lady of Mercy Academy was the happiest four years of my life, and I’m very proud to say I went there.”

The nuns who ran the school “were wonderful,” she added. “They gave me my love, my self-esteem — everything that I didn’t have — security, confidence.”

Our Lady of Mercy Academy, operated by the Sisters of Mercy, opened in 1928 with just seven students. This year, as it celebrates its 90th anniversary, the school has more than 400 students, what administrators call a promising future and some 7,500 alumnae, many of whom like Deegan still treasure memories of their time at the school on a bucolic 96-acre campus.

Our Lady of Mercy is a forerunner of a growing trend in the United States. While many all-women colleges have closed or gone coed, the number of all-girls high schools is growing, according to the Virginia-based National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. So is the number of all-girls middle and elementary schools.

Long Island is home to two all-girls Catholic high schools. The other is Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year.

“We feel vibrant. We feel excited,” said Margaret Myhan, president of Our Lady of Mercy and herself a graduate of the school. “We are not just surviving but thriving. We have all-girls schools on Long Island because they provide a unique opportunity to empower young women. It provides a faith-filled, mission-driven education that really drives them for the rest of their lives.”

While there is no single database of the number of private and public all-girls schools, the national coalition group estimates there are 375 in the United States. The coalition has seen its membership increase from 175 schools to 242 in the past seven years, said Megan Murphy, the group’s executive director.

New all-girls schools are opening from Los Angeles to New York, where the Young Women’s Leadership Network, which started in 1996 in East Harlem, has continued to open them, Murphy said. While historically the majority of all-girls schools have been private, an increasing number of all-girls public and charter schools are opening, she said. The Leadership Network, which operates public schools, seeks to provide students from low-income families with a high-quality college preparatory education modeled on top private schools.

“Girls schools are not vestiges of the past,” Murphy said. “They have never been more relevant than they are today.”

Leonard Sax, head of the National Association for Single Sex Education, said that in 1998 there were four girls-only public schools, two of which were founded in the 1840s, and no boys-only public schools in the United States.

Today there are about 110 girls-only public schools, such as the Irma Lerma Rangel Academy in Dallas, and 70 boys-only public schools, such as the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, also in Dallas, Sax said.

Myhan and Kristin Graham, president of Sacred Heart, said they believe their schools maintain a steady enrollment because they fill a special role for girls: allowing them to flourish in the classroom, take on all leadership roles in the school, not be distracted by boys and advance in areas such as science, math and technology where they might feel inhibited in coed settings.

“We really know from the research that girls schools create safe risk-taking environments for girls, so they are more likely to try out for something,” Graham said. “So they’ll put themselves out there a little more, run for student council president, raise their hand in class on a challenging problem that they may not know they have 100 percent right but they feel safe to take a risk. I think learning takes center stage here because there are limited distractions. Not none, but limited.”

Creating top students

Officials at Our Lady of Mercy and Sacred Heart both said they have strong track records of sending a disproportionate number of graduates off to top colleges, and that the schools are on the upswing.

Our Lady of Mercy, with a 2018 graduating class of 114, is sending students this fall to the University of Notre Dame, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Dartmouth, Vanderbilt and other Ivy League or top-tier colleges. The class has garnered $26 million in scholarships.

The school has undergone $2.5 million in upgrades and additions in the past four years, including a new technology center and student study center, and improvements to the science labs and softball field.

Sacred Heart also has a relatively large number of graduating seniors heading to Ivy League or other leading colleges, including Yale, Fordham, Holy Cross, Northwestern and Johns Hopkins. This year’s class of 148 was awarded $45 million in scholarships.

Sacred Heart expects one of its largest freshman classes in years this fall — 253 students — and for the second year in a row has a waiting list. The 10-acre campus has expanded over the past decade with the conversion of two nearby homes to use as offices for the administration and guidance department. Another property was purchased to create a sports field.

“I don’t even think of sustainability as a question for Sacred Heart,” Graham said. “We sort of think about expansion and futuristic planning.”

The schools’ mission presents challenges. They are surrounded by top public school districts and must compete for a declining number of school-age children on Long Island in general. Plus, unlike public schools, they charge tuition, about $11,000 a year.

Long Island had three girls Catholic high schools until 2009, when the Academy of St. Joseph in Brentwood shut down after an illustrious 153-year history, complete with boarders from as far away as South America. It was run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, who also operate Sacred Heart in Hempstead and four other all-girls high schools in the city — three in Brooklyn and one in Queens, as well as one in Puerto Rico.

The nuns said the school in Brentwood was no longer financially viable because of falling enrollment.

Chaminade, in Mineola, is the only all-boys Catholic high school on Long Island. It is run by the Marianist brothers, who said applications are booming.

Some coed private schools, such as St. Martin de Porres Marianist School in Uniondale, also run by the Marianists, are trying experiments to keep the genders apart. Boys and girls go their separate ways for academic classes in 6th, 7th and 8th grades, said John Holian, headmaster of the school.

“It has worked out phenomenally. I would never go back,” Holian said. “It allows them to be themselves. It is just one less pressure they have to deal with. And parents find it very attractive.”

Shauna Fowler, 17, a junior from Levittown, said enrolling at Our Lady of Mercy was her own decision, not her parents’. Like many students she has a relative, her sister, who is an alumna.

“I loved that it was an all-girls’ school because I thought that would be the best way to empower me as a woman,” Fowler said. “I feel like it gives me a rare opportunity to be a leader in every way, whether it be in the classroom or robotics team or sports team. It just gives me a good chance to be myself and not worry about what others think.”

Marykate Kiley, 16, a junior from Massapequa whose grandmother attended Our Lady of Mercy, said not having boys at the school eliminated many distractions. She said her sister attends a coed high school and gets up much earlier in the morning to fix her hair and makeup.

“I get to sleep better at night, stay up late studying more, not worried about having to wake up early to do my hair and makeup,” she said. Her sister “also has a lot more stresses . . . being with boys in general that I don’t really have.”

Facing some opposition

Not everyone thinks single-sex schools are a panacea. Diane Halpern, a professor emeritus at the private, liberal arts school Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, and a past president of the American Psychological Association, said a meta-analysis of more than 1.6 million studies “has shown there are no benefits to single-sex education. And some of the problems with it is that it tends to reinforce sex-role stereotyping.”

“I think when we are telling girls that they need to have a separate school we are sending a message,” Halpern said. “This is a world where women are going on submarines with men in the military, where they are moving into all sorts of situations where they are interacting with men in high-level positions, and there is a lot to be learned during those years interacting with people, all sorts of people, including half of the earth.”

But Sax, of the National Association for Single Sex Education, said that while single-gender schools may not be for everyone, they should be an option, and that many talented and successful women attended one. They include former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, attended the same all-girls Catholic high school in Los Angeles as actress Mary Tyler Moore.

“I am not suggesting that girls schools are ‘better’ than coed schools,” said Sax, a family doctor and author of “Why Gender Matters,” who has visited more than 400 schools over the past 17 years. “I am suggesting that what Sonia needs to fulfill her potential may be different from what Vanessa needs to fulfill her potential. One size does not fit all. Some girls do better in coed schools than in girls schools. Other girls do better in girls schools than in coed schools.

“Dr. Halpern is opposed to choice,” he added. “If it were within her power, she and her colleagues would abolish all-girls schools, or compel them to become coed. They think they know better than parents do what is best for the parents’ daughter.”

Ellen Byrnes, 18, of Port Washington, who is graduating from Sacred Heart, said the all-girls environment without the presence — and sometimes, pressure — of boys was invaluable.

“I loved the idea of an all-girls school, because in middle school I was sometimes a little bit afraid to raise my hand because I thought I would give the wrong answer,” she said. “But now I’ve come here and I’ll raise my hand for pretty much any question. I don’t mind if I get a question wrong because I know that no one will judge you in class.

“I think I could take that with me to college, because even though there are going to be boys in that environment, I’m not going to be afraid to raise my hand because I’ve already gained the confidence these last four years,” added Byrnes, who will attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and run on the storied track team.

Of course, both Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Mercy are not immune to the pressures and problems students in most institutions — coed or not — face, whether in school or out, such as drug use and alcohol. Lisa Harrison, Our Lady of Mercy’s principal, said that, like most schools, hers is seeing a growing number of students dealing with anxiety and depression — for a variety of reasons — though the school is small enough that it can handle such issues in a more personal way. Some students also link their self-worth to their grades, getting down on themselves if they don’t score high enough.

“Social media and its constant presence only amplify the many pressures on these young women,” Harrison said.

At Our Lady of Mercy, school leaders are celebrating its 90th anniversary with a series of events that will culminate with a Mass on Oct. 13 for current students, alumnae, staff and supporters. They will gather at the four-story brick building that resembles a larger version of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, complete with a white tower atop it.

When it opened in 1928, the school’s first seven students were boarders, and over the years it also attracted students from as far away as South America. The fourth-floor of the imposing U-shape building also housed the Sisters of Mercy novitiate, where young women studying to become nuns lived, said Sister Helen Lyons.

By the 1940s, the school started accepting day students, and by 1965 the boarding aspect ended. The school hit a peak of about 525 students in the 1970s, though today’s enrollment level is high enough to keep it strong, said Myhan, the president.

While nuns made up the entire staff in the early years, today few are left and the school is run almost entirely by lay people — including many alumnae — who said they are keeping the spirit of the religious sisters alive.

The 90th anniversary is prompting many alumnae and their families to reminisce.

One recent day, Karin Hobrecker — whose mother, a native of Colombia who boarded at the school and graduated in 1956 — visited for the first time to pay homage to the place that played a powerful role shaping her mother’s life.

“Her experience at Our Lady of Mercy just marked her for life,” said Hobrecker, who was visiting from Boston. “She always talked about the school. She just soared there.

“It was just overwhelming to be there and to walk the grounds and the buildings that my mom had held so dear,” added Hobrecker, whose mother, Olga Londono, died last year.

Deegan, the former foster child, said that more than six decades later she still feels proud of her school accomplishments, such as being elected senior class president.

“For a foster kid that was pretty good, because all these girls I went to school with, they had estates, and European vacations and different things,” Deegan said.

She said she shudders to think what would have happened to her if she had never attended the school. “It straightened my life out. It gave me all the things I didn’t have as a child,” Deegan said. “To think I ended up there — it’s like a storybook.”

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