Tall order for new Mercy principal

Carl Semmler (right), McGann-Mercy High School’s new principal, meets with parents and school advisory board members (from left) Manny and Marie Arturi and Pat Blake during a reception at the school last Thursday night.

The first thing people ask Carl Semmler, the new principal at McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead, is how tall he is.

“Six-foot-eight,” he says. “And, no, I didn’t play basketball. That’s the other question everybody asks.”

Still, Mr. Semmler has a tall order in front of him.

He’ll be replacing Steven Cheeseman, the school’s principal for the past eight years, who helped oversee a period during which the school went from the brink of closing to a period when enrollment has risen from fewer than 300 students, in 2001, to about 500.

Dr. Cheeseman, who was promoted to associate superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, will still have an office on the McGann-Mercy campus. He also helped in the search for his replacement.

Dr. Cheeseman said there were a couple of candidates he thought would have been excellent principals at other schools, but not at McGann-Mercy.

“This place is very special to me, so it was really important that we found the right person,” he said Thursday.

Dr. Cheeseman said that when he interviewed Mr. Semmler, he actually thought, “Wow, this guy is going to be better than me … the more I heard Mr. Semmler talk, the more I thought, ‘This guy is going to make me look bad.’ Which is what you want.”

For the past three years, Mr. Semmler has worked as an associate superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Brooklyn, overseeing 16 to 22 elementary schools.

He was in charge of strategic planning and also directed training for principals in the Diocesan schools, although he has never been a principal himself until now.

Before that, Mr. Semmler taught religion for 11 years at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, where he was also director of campus ministry and was involved in overseeing professional development, evaluation and supervision of faculty, among other things.

Prior to becoming an educator, he spent three years in a seminary studying to become a priest, eventually deciding against that vocation.

Prior to entering the seminary, he worked in promotions and print production for Scientific American magazine and for a pharmaceutical advertising agency.

Mr. Semmler, 43, and his wife, Christine, have two children, ages 2 and 4. He lives in Merrick, in Nassau County, and grew up in Valley Stream. He says he plans to commute to Riverhead.

“I’m most excited about the school year starting and seeing the building in action,” he said, “because from speaking to faculty and other administrators, and looking at curriculum guides and yearbooks, it appears to be a thriving, exciting, growing place that has a wonderful spirit. I want to see that in action.”

McGann-Mercy’s’s current enrollment for grades 7 through 12 is 500, and interest in the school is growing, Mr. Semmler said.

“People are calling all the time asking about the school,” he said.

The school is currently seeking accreditation from an independent organization called the Middle States Association, which will visit next spring. Mr. Semmler also looks forward to continuing a project begun by Dr. Cheeseman: turning a pond in the middle of the school’s former track into a state-recognized protected wetland that can be used as a teaching lab.

Mr. Semmler said that between the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which subsidizes the school, and contributions from alumni and benefactors, the cost of education gets cut by about 33 percent.

“The average cost of educating a student here is just under $12,000 and the high school tuition is just under $8,000,” he said.

The school’s alumni base has raised between $600,000 and $800,000 per year for school projects and other alumni have contributed discounted or free work to the school, he said.

Mr. Semmler said he’s glad Dr. Cheeseman will be in a nearby office as the school year begins.

“I’m indebted to Dr. Cheeseman,” he said. “He passed a school along to me that is in excellent shape and all the momentum is headed in the right direction.”

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