He helped save Mercy and now he’s moving on

McGann-Mercy High School on Ostrander Avenue in Riverhead.

After nine years as principal of McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead, Steven Cheeseman is moving on.

But he’s not moving far.

Dr. Cheeseman has been appointed as the associate superintendent for the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s Education Department, where he will be second in command, overseeing the 51 elementary schools and three high schools run by the Diocese in Suffolk and Nassau counties.

But his office will still be on the McGann-Mercy campus, in the former convent that was recently renovated into a junior high school.

“They offered me the position and I was torn,” Dr. Cheeseman said. “I love the idea of the position, it’s a great opportunity and I’d love to be involved with the other schools, but I’ve spent half my life at Mercy, between being a student, a teacher and a principal.”

Dr. Cheeseman spent four years as a student at Mercy, graduating in 1989, then he was a teacher for six years before spending a half year teaching in Cold Spring Harbor. For another year and half, he was an assistant superintendent in the Shoreham-Wading River district. After that, he was offered the job as principal in his alma mater, and has been there for nine years.

Dr. Cheeseman took over as principal at a time when it looked as if the school — then called simply Mercy High School — might be going under financially. He was brought in around the same time the Diocese of Rockville Centre took over the school from the Sisters of Mercy.

“The diocese came into the school in 2001, when I came in, and basically the school was facing closure at the time because the Sisters could no longer afford to keep it open,” Dr. Cheeseman said. “There were fewer than 300 students in grades 7-12 at the time, and they were really suffering in terms of being able to offer programs, in terms of academics, athletics and extra curricula programs. So the diocese came in, and really, we’ve had sort of a renaissance since that time. We’ve seen tremendous growth. In the nine years that I’ve been here, we’ve gone from less than 300 kids in grades 7-12 to almost 500 kids.”

The diocese invested a lot of money into the school, which helped increase program offerings and the facility, Dr. Cheeseman said. But there also have been a number of fundraising campaigns that have enabled the school to redo the track, add new tennis courts, a new football field and also renovate the convent into a junior high school.

The school also has increased the number of elective programs, courses and sports it offers, Dr. Cheeseman said.

Before he leaves, Dr. Cheeseman said, he’d like to see two other projects he’s been working on for years come to fruition.

One is an environmental center at the pond on the northwest corner of the property, which is in the middle of the old track.

“We’ll be creating a viable wetland that is really a learning lab for kids,” he said.

At the same time, the school is looking to turn the smaller pond on the northeast corner of the property into a softball field.

Dr. Cheeseman said that project already has approval from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “We just need the money to do it.”

In addition to increasing its fundraising abilities, Dr. Cheeseman said the school in recent years has been able to reconnect with its alumni, many of whom have either donated services or offered reduced price services on school projects.

And he said the students at McGann-Mercy also have impressed him with their desire to help people, not only in the community, but locally.

“They’re so committed to helping people, it really is inspiring,” he said. “When the earthquake happened in Haiti, my e-mail was flooded with e-mails from kids saying, ‘We have to do something. What are we going to do?’ They were willing to do the work and raise the money themselves.”

Staff members say they will be sad to see Dr. Cheeseman leave.

“He made it easy,” said teacher Joan Regan, who graduated from Mercy herself and was a teacher when Dr. Cheeseman was a student. “He’s easy to work with. He makes the decisions he has to make but he also takes input from people.”

Ms. Regan said she also is a union delegate for the McGann-Mercy teachers.

Facilities manager Schuyler Van Kurin, another graduate of the school, has been working there for 35 years now, and has also coached football, baseball and other sports during that time.

His reaction to Dr. Cheeseman leaving?

“I hate it,” he said. “It’s like the worst news I’ve ever heard. He’s a good guy to work for, he’s hands on. He gets things done. He’ll come to you and ask what we have to do to get something done and when you tell him, he just says to do it.”

Dr. Cheeseman says he will miss the students.

“I think the thing I’m going to miss the most is getting to see them every day,” he said. “Of all the things I’m going to miss, I think it’s that everyday relationship with the kids that I’m going to miss most.”

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