James Crisman is excited to start his freshman year at Our Lady of Mercy Academy, a new Catholic high school set to open next month in downtown Keene.

“It’s one of the first times I’ve been really excited to go to school,” James, of Stoddard, said. “It just feels cool to be one of the first students at a brand-new school.”

He’s especially looking forward to courses in the humanities, like philosophy and theology, which he hasn’t taken before, and which are core parts of the new school’s curriculum. He’s also eager for the small class sizes at Our Lady of Mercy, which is on track to enroll between 20 and 40 students in its inaugural year.

“I kind of like that you’ll get to know each kid better than if there were many, many, many that you were interacting with each day,” James, who recently graduated from Keene Middle School, said Friday.

And as anticipation for the coming academic year grows in students like James, the leaders of the new school are busy preparing to open in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously, opening up a brand-new school is extremely difficult, and requires a great amount of time, anytime,” Principal Chris Smith said. “In this scenario, obviously that has been even more difficult.”

But Smith, who is also the principal of St. Joseph Regional School, the pre-K-through-8th-grade school on the same campus, added that the new high school has some advantages opening in a time defined by social distancing measures and other pandemic protocols. For starters, Our Lady of Mercy is enrolling only freshmen and sophomores this first year.

“So, that is so much easier to manage than managing a hundred students walking in that have never been here before,” Smith said.

And when the new school year begins on Aug. 28, Our Lady of Mercy will have access to all three floors of the Clairvaux Center at 161 Main St., which previously housed a convent and offices for the Parish of the Holy Spirit. The building has never been a school before, but thus far has required only minor modifications, like crash bars on the doors and an identification system, to bring it in line with state school security requirements.

“For a small private school, it’s perfect. And that’s what we’re going to be,” Smith said. “... A lot of the rooms are great sizes already, and it’s been kept in really good condition, so we feel fortunate.”

Along with these renovations and the usual back-to-school preparations, Smith and other school leaders also have had to hire about a half-dozen new teachers for the high school, all while preparing to reopen St. Joseph, which has about 180 students and approximately 27 staff members.

St. Joseph transitioned to remote learning on March 13, and remained that way for the rest of the school year. The Diocese of Manchester, which comprises the entire state of New Hampshire, announced last week that Catholic schools statewide will reopen for in-person instruction in the fall.

“Since March, many parents have struggled to balance their own telecommuting with assisting in the education of their children at home,” Diocese Superintendent David A. Thibault said in a news release. “Teachers have missed the one-on-one interaction with their students, and students have missed their teachers and friends. Everyone involved rose to the challenge but we recognize that remote learning is not ideal.”

Both St. Joseph and Our Lady of Mercy plan to welcome students back for in-person classes this year, Smith said, but all families at both schools will have the option to choose remote learning instead. And the remote instruction, Smith added, would be different than the past spring semester. The schools are working on equipping each classroom with a webcam that would allow for synchronous instruction for students learning remotely.

“It would be a regular day of school, at home,” Smith said. “You could ask questions, raise your hand, interact with the teacher. That’s different than the way we had it before, but that’s what I’m looking at for the fall.”

The schools are still working on a final plan for returning to in-person instruction, based on guidance from the diocese and the state, along with input from a committee made up of school officials, health care professionals, teachers and parents. Smith said he hopes to share that plan with families and staff in early August.

Janene Crisman, James’ mother, said she and her husband, Ted, feel comfortable and confident sending him to Mercy Academy, and sending two of their other children — Liam, a seventh-grader, and Francesca, who is going into fourth grade — back to St. Joseph.

“I just think that they can meet all the standards quite easily,” she said, noting the small class sizes, and the two buildings the schools can utilize. Plus, Janene added, her kids want to go back to school.

“My St. Joe’s kids really like their teachers, and they miss just the kind of spirit, camaraderie [and] energy of the school,” she said.

And with James, one of the Crismans’ eight children, starting ninth grade, Janene said her family is glad to have the choice to send their children to a nearby Catholic high school.

“We like that there’s an option,” she said. “It is nice to have options, and for years we didn’t ever really feel like there was this kind of option for us.”

Before Our Lady of Mercy, the closest Catholic high schools in New Hampshire were in Concord and Newport. St. Michael’s, a Catholic school in Brattleboro, offers kindergarten through 12th grade.

In its inaugural year and beyond, Our Lady of Mercy aims to offer a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, including foreign language requirements and a focus on the arts and music, Smith said. In the future, the school also plans to offer students the chance to take classes at Keene State College, River Valley Community College and the Cheshire Career Center.

“We’re really interested in providing a safe and positive environment for students to grow, and want to learn, an environment that focuses on being free to learn,” Smith said.

Our Lady of Mercy also hopes to capitalize on its location, and encourage students to engage in the community.

“We’re in such an awesome location right on Main Street in town,” said Jennifer Marshall, the director of advancement at St. Joseph and Our Lady of Mercy. “There’s a lot of opportunity that that opens up for our students.”

For example, Our Lady of Mercy students will be required to take a community-service-based course called The Mercy Project, which will include instruction from teachers, clergy, business owners, city officials and other community servants. At the end of the four-year Mercy Project track, students will form their own nonprofit organizations to meet a need they have identified within the community, Smith said.

When Our Lady of Mercy expands to four classes in two years, the school will have capacity for about 125 students, Smith said. Applications for the 2020-21 school year are still open, and available on the school’s website.

The high school will encourage students in the inaugural class to create their own extracurricular activities based on their interests, Smith added.

“I don’t want to create a chess club if no students want to play chess,” he said. “So really, this first group of students that are here will really help define what that looks like.”

Our Lady of Mercy likely won’t offer any athletics right away, but students will be able to compete at their local public high school, Smith said. Our Lady of Mercy will provide transportation to practices and games for those student athletes.

Tuition for the coming school year at Our Lady of Mercy is $8,000 per student, but optional fundraising could reduce the cost to $6,300. And, Smith added, students’ tuition will lock in based on the cost their freshman year.

“It just is going to make it easier to budget for the families,” Smith said. “... And so we really wanted to make it something that, if you’re interested in this kind of private education, that it would be affordable.”

St. Joseph's to launch new Catholic high school in Keene

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.