Educating young women in Omaha for half a century
By LISA SCHULTE
The Catholic Voice
A new pictorial history of Omaha's Mercy High School lines the wall of the 50-year-old school, which marks its golden anniversary this month.
The Heritage Wall, designed by Mercy grad Joanne Stewart, celebrates the history of the Catholic, all-girls school founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1955.
'We really wanted to celebrate the richness of that history," said Principal Carolyn Jaworski.
That history, which began on Nov. 2, 1955, includes a liberal arts curriculum, unique negotiated tuition and open enrollment.
'We have only one entrance requirement and that is that the young woman wants to be a part of this community and a part of the educational community," said Sister Johanna Burnell, RSM, president of Mercy. 'There are no restrictions on financial status. You don't have to score a certain percentage on a test to get in. We have an open enrollment policy. You just have to want to be here."
This year, 335 students are enrolled at Mercy. They come from 40 parishes.
Faith is the anchor of the education that students receive at Mercy, Sister Burnell said. Every day class period begins with prayer. All students take a theology class each year and attend an all-school Mass once a month. An optional weekly Mass is also offered, which Sister Burnell said is heavily attended.
'These young people are surrounded by a community of adults who are all wonderful examples," she said. 'That gives these young people very good witnessing of what it means to be a person of faith and how you talk about your faith and how you use prayer as an instrument of your daily life."
A changing history
Mercy was one of several schools in Omaha founded by the Sisters of Mercy. They also founded Mount St. Mary Seminary, St. Catherine Academy, St. Berchmans, St. John and St. Mary, all of which have closed.
When Mercy opened in 1955, it was a combination of St. John and St. Mary high schools. More than 150 students came from St. John and 300 came from St. Mary. Another 200 started as Mercy's first freshman class.
Twenty-one Sisters and one lay teacher made up Mercy's first faculty. Sister Mary Brendan O'Malley was the school's first principal.
The building, located at 48th and Woolworth streets, featured a multi-purpose auditorium, library, cafeteria, chapel and the largest convent in the city.
Since that time, the school has undergone several changes to meet the needs of its students. In 1989, Mercy launched a major campaign to establish the Sister Mary Brendan O'Malley Endowment Fund in support of Mercy's negotiated tuition program.
In 1992, the school renovated the science labs, computer labs and administration offices. Then in 1999, it added a gymnasium and weight room. In 2004, a training room was built. The school library, fine arts center, chapel, dining hall and development offices have been refurbished as well. The 52-bedroom convent was transformed into seven classrooms, and this fall, the school got its first parking lot.
Educating all students
Despite the various changes Mercy has undergone, its mission has remained the same "“ to provide a quality education in a Catholic environment and, following the founders of the Sisters of Mercy, to be dedicated to the careful instruction of young women.
With its open enrollment policy, Mercy welcomes all students, including those with special needs. Although the teachers don't have specialized training in special education, it's just an understanding and an expectation that the teachers have to help every student in the classroom learn, Jaworski, said.
'Our teachers are marvelous, providing that extra time, that extra support, those extra efforts for these accommodations," Jaworski said.
Sister Burnell said one of the greatest strengths of Mercy is its diversified curriculum.
Since Mercy is a liberal arts high school, the offerings are broader than an exclusive college prep environment, she said.
'We're able to offer a premier college-prep program, but also additional courses in the arts and in the consumer science and sports medicine and in those types of things that will help girls round out their lives and not just be little learning machines," Sister Burnell said.
In addition to college preparatory classes, course work also includes business and family science. Advanced placement courses are offered in British literature, calculus, chemistry, history and Spanish.
Students also have access to cutting edge technology, including state-of-the-art computer labs and high-speed Internet access. A student server is accessible from home and an interactive Web site, EdLINE, allows parents and students to access grades and assignments online at any time.
Negotiating tuition costs
Mercy is set apart from other high schools by its negotiated tuition program. No student is turned away because they can't afford the tuition, Sister Burnell said. Instead, Mercy administrators work individually with families to come up with the most reasonable tuition for them.
The balance of the tuition is paid by a work-study grant. The 90 percent of Mercy freshmen who are in the work-study program usually work for two to three years in secretarial and cleaning positions.
Approximately $90,000 is allotted to the work-study program each year, Sister Burnell said. The Mercy Grant, which comes from the school's endowment, is in place to guarantee that all the students have their tuition paid. The development office raises about $800,000 a year to make up for the money lacking from tuition.
'The Sisters of Mercy themselves, as a religious organization in the Omaha region, stand so behind us in that philosophy of making this type of opportunity available to any young woman that they are our financial backers in making negotiation tuition work," said Jaworski, a 1964 graduate of Mercy.
Negotiated tuition isn't something new; it has always been part of the school's history in theory, Sister Burnell said. It just has a name now.
'The Sisters had always made allowances for people," she said. 'They always helped people no matter who they were. It just wasn't advertised and so some people weren't coming because their parents didn't know."
When Sister Burnell and Jaworski came in 1987, they took what was happening, put some form around it and made it public.
'People thought we were crazy. They said we would be closed within months," Sister Burnell said. 'That was 18 years ago and we have over $7 million in our endowment. That's one of the things that keep us going."
Jaworski said she hopes negotiated tuition will continue to be a part of Mercy's future.
'I hope we're able to stay in touch with the rich legacy that has been left to us," she said, 'and continue to excel as a school of great faith and wonderful academic achievement."