On the northern edge of Fayette County sits Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School, a small private school that has been building a positive reputation for itself in its relatively short history. While the school has been reaching new ground in academics and athletics in recent years, cracks could be starting to show in the foundation. To listen to those deeply involved at the school, things are changing under the current leadership and driving people away.
Our Lady of Mercy has long been lauded by many involved with the school for its welcoming, inclusive atmosphere. A commonly shared belief has been that when you came to Mercy, you felt like you had become part of the family. As one present in the audience recalled, at the school's first graduation back in 2003, the valedictorian spoke about her first day at Mercy and being greeted by smiling faces, saying "I knew I was home." One former parent, Theresa Bush, shared a story of her daughter, a class of 2012 graduate, and how she was welcomed on her first day at Mercy.
"When Emma came in as a freshman, she came knowing absolutely nobody," said Theresa. Emma sat down at lunch, and several senior students sat down next to the new freshman and introduced themselves. "It was just a family. Everybody interacted."
Whereas 'family' and 'welcoming' were once the buzzwords, words like 'sad' and 'wrong' are becoming more common choices used by insiders to describe the school's current atmosphere.
Principal Brian Newhall came to Mercy with experience in education administration dating back to 1985, including stops at five previous schools. Newhall just completed his second year at Mercy, but many are finding his tenure tough to endure. More than 20 people associated with the school, including current and former faculty and staff and families, came forward asking to share their stories. Most requested their names be withheld because they fear retaliation, either from Newhall or the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which oversees 17 other Archdiocesan schools serving more than 8,000 students. Their stories served to paint a consistent picture of the school's environment under Newhall, one that has drastically changed since his arrival. While specific incidents were corroborated by multiple sources, they have been omitted from this article to avoid identifying specific affected parties as requested.
The first noticeable change sources point to is faculty and staff turnover. Academics have always been a bright beacon at the school with experienced teachers proudly molding scores of scholars. Mercy grads have gone on to matriculate at Ivy League colleges, service academies, and countless other prestigious schools in between. Under Newhall's leadership, the school has seen the departure of many faculty and staff members, taking with them a wealth of experience.
At a small school with less than 50 total on staff, Mercy saw double digit employees leave after Newhall's first year alone. While there were likely a variety of reasons for departing, many singled out Newhall and his leadership style as the main reason for their leaving.
One of those staff members who left after Newhall's first year made his reasons clear. "I loved it there before, but there was so much stress (in the year with Newhall). I pray for those still going through it everyday. I was fortunate enough that I was in a position I could leave."
Reached via email, Dr. Diane Starkovich, the Superintendent of School for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, responded to questions about the number of faculty/staff departures. "While it is the policy of the Archdiocese of Atlanta not to comment on personnel matters, our records indicate that over the past two years, 53% of former employees resigned their positions at OLM due to retirement, moving out of state, completing a service commitment with a major university and the school, to pursue graduate studies, and to enter the seminary," said Starkovich. "Mr. Newhall has consistently applied all Archdiocesan policies including performance evaluations which were inconsistently completed prior to his administration. With consistently applied performance evaluations, increased accountability raises our ability to best serve the students which we are privileged to enroll in any of our schools. This increased level of accountability and raising expectations at the school may have been the reason other employees left the school."
Another commonly heard complaint is excessive harassment of more veteran staff members compared to the younger teachers hired by Newhall. One former faculty member willing to go on the record, Chris Shivers, spoke about his experiences with Newhall, echoing the concerns of harassment, lack of trust, and general discontent consistent with the other teachers who asked not to be identified. Shivers, an employee at the school for nearly a decade, described Newhall coming into his classroom and questioning his teaching style in front of a class full of students.
"It's his way or no way," said Shivers.
Another former veteran teacher who felt targeted by Newhall recounted the principal sitting in his class more than a half dozen times in one semester alone. Others shared stories of Newhall talking about employees and their salaries behind their backs to others or belittling them in front of colleagues, parents, or students.
This isn't the first time Newhall has experienced conflict with a staff member. When he was the principal of Roswell High School in 1999, he clashed with long-time coach and then-athletic director Ray Manus, which led to Manus' sudden resignation and triggered a walkout protest from nearly 600 students along with many parents.
"It was his style of leadership," said Manus in a 2004 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I didn't think it was productive. There was no knockdown, drag-out fights or plots against him. It was just hard to walk into that building every day."
Many affiliated with Mercy can relate to that sentiment, claiming that the warm environment just isn't there anymore. Faculty members refer to a general "sadness" and "state of mourning" among their ranks. Theresa Bush, a fixture at the school for years as a parent and a volunteer who operated the spirit store, spoke of countless times that teachers dropped in the store just to have someone to talk to about the negative impact the new principal was having on Mercy. After she stopped running the store, they sought her out when she was at the school to pick up her son, ducking behind her car to avoid being caught on camera talking to her.
Also frustrating for the staff is the feeling that they have nowhere to turn with their concerns. The Archdiocese distributed an end-of-the-year survey for staff to fill out, but signatures were required leaving those who spoke for the story saying they felt discouraged from giving honest answers out of fear of facing retaliation. Multiple sources also confirmed that Newhall said, perhaps jokingly, that he would find out if a negative review was written.
Regarding staff discontent and feelings that no effective outlet exists to address them, Starkovich responded "all employees have processes available to them should they feel they are being treated unfairly. We have an excellent director of human resources who takes these concerns seriously and he investigates them as an advocate of our employees."
Some parents, too, feel their concerns fall on deaf ears. For years Theresa Bush gave countless hours to Mercy, including time spent running the spirit shop, preparing costumes for the drama program and many other volunteer activities. She sent multiple letters to the school and the Archdiocese, hoping to have her concerns addressed. She also requested meetings with Newhall, but no meeting was given.
"I was tired of giving money to the Archdiocese to spend it for (Newhall). They're turning a blind eye," said Theresa. "I've just had it. I was tired of being dismissed. I don't need to give them my money."
Starkovich addressed the parental displeasure, "Parents have the same opportunity to express concerns and they are outlined in local handbooks but also in the policy manual for the Office of Catholic Schools. While there will always be some who do not agree with the decision of a teacher, staff member, or even a principal, we have avenues available for our parents to express concerns as well."
Employees and parents also perceive a dramatic decline in proper disciplinary action for poor student behavior. Multiple staff members confirmed witnessing incidents of lesbian PDA, public displays of affection, in the hallways and brought it to Newhall's attention. There were also consistent claims of excessive use of foul language from students on school grounds, a scarcity on campus in prior years according those who spoke. Witnesses spoke of escalating unruly behavior and theft in the cafeteria that went unchecked as well as on-campus fights, where that was "not the norm" previously.
Staff and parents who spoke also say the dress code is inconsistently enforced, and more frequent dress down days are chipping away at the tradition of strict uniform guidelines. Many said they are frustrated that such behaviors that would not be allowed in public schools are being tolerated at the Catholic school.
Several commented that when students are actually disciplined, the consequences are inconsistent, due in part to the disbanding of the disciplinary committee during Newhall's tenure. Shivers confirmed claims of unpredictable changes in rule enforcement. "The students are on edge because of the inconsistent discipline. One day it's okay to wear green socks, but the next day, (Newhall) is in a bad mood and you get yelled at for it."
While Starkovich did not address specific disciplinary issues, citing Archdiocese policy, she did talk about the disciplinary philosophy. "Discipline in any of our Catholic schools is approached from a opportunity to improve decision-making on the part of the student. While our policies are not considered punitive in nature, students are held accountable to the choices they make. When they make poor choices, they are counseled and encouraged to make more appropriate choices in the future. Our discipline procedures are also considered progressive, meaning that they become more severe with additional poor decision-making," said Starkovich. "While I am held to a high level of confidentiality regarding student discipline in any of our schools, students who continue to make poor choices may be asked to leave the school at some point and they may also be denied admission for the following semester and/or school year. Public displays of affection are not allowed in any of our schools and principals and academic deans and/or assistant principals assist with these matters locally." She also added, "Since our schools are site-based managed, the local administrative team handles these matters as long as they comply with Archdiocesan policies."
When asked to comment further on specific claims such as fear of retaliation among the faculty and staff, concern over the numbers who spoke for the story, claims of harrassment, and others, Starkovich responded "it has been our long standing policy in the Archdiocese of Atlanta not to discuss personnel issues. We hold ourselves to a very high standard in this area . This same level of confidentiality applies whenever discussing our students," and added, "the responses were in a manner appropriate and allowed by policy."
While enrollment may be reaching record highs, it doesn't seem to be the type of students the school was built around if you talk to those concerned with Mercy's direction. The Archdiocese's website states that in the 2012-13 school year, the last statistics available on their site, the average student body at an Archdiocese school was 14 percent non-Catholic. Our Lady of Mercy at that same time was 42 percent non-Catholic.
Area demographics are a contributing factor in those numbers, per Starkovich. "OLM accepts qualified applicants of all religions as long as parents and students support the mission of the school and understand the requirements of taking theology in our schools. The Catholic population in the southern part of the metropolitan area is smaller than the number of registered Catholics north of I-20. It logically follows that Catholic vs. non-Catholic enrollment patterns would mirror this statistic." She also added "This, however, is only one measure of our viability. Our schools are also considered centers of evangelization and each year we see students, teachers and even parents converting to our faith. While we do not expect this conversion, it is an added benefit of the values-driven and strong Catholic identity found in our schools."
Starkovich noted that when she arrived in 2006, "OLM enrolled the highest number of non-Catholic students, approximately 48-percent."
In a county with top notch public schools and an area with quality private schools like Landmark Christian, Heritage Christian, Trinity Christian, and others, Mercy parents are questioning their decisions to spend their hard-earned incomes on Mercy tuition given its current environment. Some feel it's not the Catholic environment they've come to know. Long-time families who have put multiple children through the school are ready to wipe their hands of it. For them, they say the family atmosphere had been the biggest draw to Mercy. To them, parents, students, and staff all felt like they were together in one family. They had input and ownership in a school they loved. They built friendships outside of school walls and gave back to Mercy with their time and money. They say it's not the same anymore. Their frustration has now spilled outside of the school walls.
Toni Schwahn, whose son graduated in 2010 and daughter graduated this year, summed up the effect Newhall has had on her family's future association with the school. "Personally, we're done supporting the school financially. We're just not going to support something we don't believe in." She added, "When our son was there it was a warm, family nurturing community. Now, it's not even close. It's just gone. If (my daughter) hadn't been a senior, we would've pulled her out."
Her husband, Paul, echoed her feelings, adding that they firmly believe the exodus of staff is affecting the quality of education available. "It's the fact that, in one year, they've driven away some of the best teachers they've ever had," said Paul. "The reason that we first sent our kids is so they could get a college preparatory education, so they would get a better education than they would get in a public school system."
They were quick to applaud the quality of the school in the past. "Our son got a very good education at Mercy," said Paul. "He made the comment when he went to college that college was easier than high school for him."
A 2012-13 executive summary for the school, conducted by AdvancED (the parent company of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) acknowledges test scores have not been a strength at Mercy, adding that a number of students enter the school "well below grade level" in the areas of math and language arts.
This coincides with the consistent belief among those who spoke out that many of the drastic changes made at the school are to simply increase enrollment and improve the school's bottom line. The AdvancED executive summary report explains that the Archdiocese has started to reduce financial support for Mercy as enrollment has increased, stating, "the school continues to seek new ways to increase revenue while holding down costs by running as efficiently as possible. In the future, the school anticipates a reduction in the generous subsidies received from the Archdiocese."
Newhall has a reputation for being able to tighten the belt when needed and for making sweeping changes to do so. A 2006 story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his departure at Woodstock High School noted that test scores improved and new heights were reached in athletics during his tenure. He was also named the outstanding principal for his district during his first year at Woodstock. One Woodstock parent in that story commented, "I did not see eye to eye with him at first. He was aloof, evasive, hard-core...but I realized his main interest was to contribute to the children's education. I'm disappointed he's leaving. He ostracized a lot of parents and teachers at first. He didn't care. He pushed forward."
The Archdiocese is pleased with where the school is at under current leadership. "Brian Newhall enjoys not only the full confidence of me as the superintendent of schools but also that of Archbishop Gregory, our wonderful local shepherd," Starkovich said.
Those upset with the Mercy's leadership say they understand and appreciate that things must be done to care for school's financial health and that Newhall has done a good job with that, but they wonder at what cost. While Mercy's fiscal standing may improve under Newhall, some wonder if it might be too late by then to matter.
"We would've continued to volunteer there. We would've continued to support the Mercy Fund," said Paul Schwahn. "Not anymore. We'll put our money elsewhere."
Theresa Bush's son was set to be a junior at Mercy next year, but they've already decided he won't be back and will be enrolling in a public school closer to home. "Even though (Newhall) says it on a daily basis, I'm not sure he's looking out for the kids," said Paul Schwahn. "He's looking out for himself and the bottom line."
Theresa Bush gets choked up talking about the state of the school and the low morale of so many teachers, staff, and students she's come to see as extended family members.
"It's just sad, to take something that was built with so much love and see it like this," she said. "It just isn't right. It has to stop."
Fayette Newspapers attempted to arrange a sitdown interview with Brian Newhall through the Archdiocese. The Archdiocese requested a copy of the questions that would be asked so their legal counsel could vet them prior to the meeting. When our staff declined to provide questions ahead of time, the Archdiocese declined our request to interview Mr. Newhall.