A group of sophomores jet out the front door of Our Lady of Mercy Academy, headed to grab lunch across the street at The Works. “We’ll be right back!” they yell to Office Assistant Allison Murray as they sign out, and head down Main Street together. The students are taking advantage of an opportunity that not many other schools in the region have — close proximity to downtown Keene.
Students at Our Lady of Mercy Academy enjoy lots of perks by being downtown. “We let the students get out for lunch downtown or go to the library. They need to maintain a certain GPA and must always go with a friend, but we think it’s a perfect way to give the students some independence,” said Liberty Ebright, Dean of Students at Mercy. “There are lots of rules around it that they have to follow, but being able to walk around a bit and grab lunch together downtown or do some work at the public library really gives them a unique opportunity and teaches them responsibility. It’s a big deal for them to go off-campus.”
Mercy Academy is housed in the former Clairvaux Center, next to St. Bernard’s Church and rectory, along Main Street. It is positioned across the parking lot from St. Joseph Regional School, from which many of Mercy’s students hail. The two schools create a family-oriented small campus, where parents who have students in multiple grades can have a consistent, stable environment for their children.
Programs like getting lunch downtown are possible at Mercy not only because of the location, but also because of the size of the school. Mercy Academy is small. Right now, there are 38 students in grades nine through 12, up from 16 last year. At full enrollment in a few years, the school will have about 125 students at the most. At Our Lady of Mercy Academy, being intentionally small is advantageous.
“For us, small means that we can focus on our students and give them individualized attention. Small means that we can be flexible and make adjustments to give them exactly what they need, whether they are advanced learners or need special assistance,” says Chris Smith, Principal of Our Lady of Mercy Academy. “It means small class sizes, so that everyone can participate and everyone gets to know the faculty better.”
The average class size at Mercy is 11 students. Teachers believe that this gives them the capacity to help students succeed to the best of their abilities.
“I can do some experiments in my classes that would be much more difficult with a large group,” commented science teacher Abbey Hoye. “A few weeks ago, we did a Physics experiment that would have been nearly impossible with a large group. But I was able to take my time with the students and also let them take their time to make mistakes and work through adjustments that they wanted to make. In the end, they got much more out of the experiment than they would have normally. As a teacher, I really love to see that.”
The size of Mercy also makes local field trips much easier. Physical education classes during the school day can easily go to The Summit Athletic Center in Keene during their class time to work out. Last year, an all-school ski trip to Pat’s Peak capped off the Catholic School Week celebration. And all-school hikes, like the recent trip up Gap Mountain in Swanzey with Mass celebrated at the summit, are manageable and organized each semester. Within the next few years, an annual trip to Rome, Italy, for all seniors will begin taking place as well, which will be an exceptional educational opportunity for students, taking the high school experience to a higher level.
Mercy Academy also has a House System in place that is distinct among schools in the Monadnock Region. A traditional feature of British schools and popularized through the Harry Potter series, the House System creates communities within the larger school community. Mercy’s four houses — Aquinas, Drogo, Josephine, and Ursula — are each named for Catholic saints. The Houses compete against one another for points towards the House Cup, awarded at the end of the year. Academic honors, service hours, and friendly competitions help students accumulate points, and in the process, help students of different years get to know one another, provide additional leadership opportunities, and foster teamwork skills.
“The House competitions are really fun and creative,” said freshman Emma Schriver, Head of House for Aquinas. “Everyone always has lots of new ideas to share at the House meetings. It’s good to get to know some people in other grades that I didn’t know before being in our House.”
Community service is an important, unique component of Mercy’s curriculum. Students are required to complete 15 hours of community service per school year, which is counted toward their graduation requirements. Opportunities for service are numerous as students learn about nonprofit organizations within one of their required courses, called the Mercy Project. The Mercy Project is an interpretation of a community service-based course in which students play active roles. Students take a deep dive into learning about nonprofit organizations, their place to help better communities, how they work, and even how to start one. Each year has a different theme: service, leadership, business, and the culmination of planning their own nonprofit.
“When we planned to open Mercy Academy, our goal was to create a small, affordable, vibrant private high school where students are safe, and they can focus on academics and service to the larger community around them,” said Smith. “And that is exactly what we have done. It’s really an ideal learning environment.”