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McGann-Mercy group to seek bishop’s approval to establish independent Catholic STEM high school in Riverhead

A group determined to save Catholic secondary education in eastern Suffolk has developed a business and academic plan to open a STEM high school on the campus of Bishop McGann-Mercy High School, which the Diocese of Rockville Center is closing next month.

Nearly two dozen people have stepped up to develop the plan and begin fundraising for the effort to establish a new Catholic high school at the Riverhead campus.

“The bishop is open to the idea,” said Kerry Wilkie one of the organizers of the effort.

Two members of the group, Bob Terry and Shawn Leonard, met with Bishop John Barres last month, she said.

“It was the first time anyone from the high school’s prior advisory board was able to meet with the bishop” since the diocese in March announced its intention to close McGann-Mercy at the end of this school year, committee member Tracy Kappenberg said.

The announcement in March shocked the school community and beyond. A group quickly formed to save McGann-Mercy, but it became clear the diocese would not entertain the idea. Organizers instead began to pursue establishing a Catholic high school that would not be run by the diocese — something that’s been done with success in other places.

“We know we can accomplish this,” Wilkie said today. “We’ve got to show the bishop we have a solid plan, not just for finances but for academics as well. We also need to show him we are capable of raising the money needed to open and sustain the school.”

Their goal is to raise $5 million, which will more than cover the cost of running the school for the first year, she said. They’ve raised a quarter-million so far. It’s difficult raising money when the status of the school is unknown, she said.

Wilkie said the plan is being finalized today and will be brought to the printer on Thursday. They will have it in hand before mid-week next week and then will call the bishop’s office for an appointment, which they hope will come no later than the first part of the following week.

The group is hopeful the bishop will sign off on the plan, Wilkie said.

The hope is to open in September.

“Our plan is to make this a fabulous STEM school,” Wilkie said. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

“We have the ability. Mercy is the only Catholic school on Long Island that has an engineering program,” she said. “We have the wetlands and can use that to create an environmental program. We want to link the children out here with agriculture. We will bring in robotics and coding. We will really make it a powerhouse STEM school.”

In fact it would be the only STEM magnet school — parochial or public — in the region. Eastern Suffolk BOCES operates a STEM high school program at its Bellport tech center. It is a two-year program that admits 11th graders; the students remain enrolled in and graduate from their regular high school.

“We’ve analyzed the data,” Wilkie said. “There are close to 9,000 eighth-graders
in the townships we could expect to draw from. I don’t think it’s impossible to get one percent of that population here.”

Bishop McGann-Mercy currently has a total enrollment of 312 students in grades nine to 12.

The organizers of the new school believe establishing it as a STEM magnet school would drive up enrollment significantly.

“The support from the community has absolutely wonderful — even from non-Catholic school attending families,” Wilkie said. “People recognize the need.”

“The people here are perfectly capable of making this happen,” she said. “We just need permission,” Wilkie said.

A spokesperson for the diocese did not respond to a request for comment.

“I can’t wrap my head around [the bishop] not giving us a chance. We’ve all put our lives on hold. We’re not going to rest until this comes to fruition.”

The group has a fundraising page where donors can pledge their support.  It is also hosting two golf outings: June 18 at North Fork Country Club and July 30 at the Vineyard Golf Club. For more information
email the organizers

Wilkie, whose daughter is a senior at McGann-Mercy, said her dream is to announce at the high school’s June 6 graduation ceremony that the school will remain open.

“That would make it a good day, memorable for everybody in a better way,” she said.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.