Second-Year Principal Passionate For Catholic Education
Published: February 7, 2008
FAIRBURN—Our Lady of Mercy High School Principal Danny Dorsel appreciates the difference between receiving an education and receiving a Catholic education.
“I don’t love education,” he said, “I love Catholic education. If I weren’t in a Catholic school it wouldn’t be the same.”
Dorsel and Father Jimmy Adams, who was named OLM chaplain in June 2007, shared their approach to educating the diverse OLM student body as they, the faculty and school families continue to carve out a niche in the local community for the eight-year-old high school.
Understanding that “catholic” means “universal,” Dorsel heralded the richness of OLM’s student body, which is comprised in large part of African-American and Hispanic students.
“I think our community really reflects society in the real world, as well as the membership of our church,” he said.
Fifty-five percent of students are minorities from different backgrounds so “the majority is actually a minority.”
There is also religious diversity at OLM. Seventy percent of the students are Catholic; most others are Christian, Dorsel added.
“There’s not a mold to our (school) family,” he said. “There is the single parent, the grandparent raising a grandchild, parents who are retired, homes where one parent works and one doesn’t, or both parents work or one parent has two jobs.”
But they all want a Catholic education for their children, and they find in the principal someone who shares their viewpoint.
“(A Catholic education) is the best investment you will ever make,” Dorsel said. “It’s truly an investment that involves sacrifice but you only get one chance as your child grows up.”
In order to help families with the cost of tuition, 40 percent receive some type of financial assistance, he said. “We’ll find a way to educate your child if you want a Catholic education.”
In his second year as principal, Dorsel recently became a YouTube phenomenon when he lived up to his promise to perform with the school’s step team if enrollment hit a target number of 220 students.
He is also forthright in making sure incoming parents and students—some coming from public or other private school settings—know what to expect. At the beginning of each school year he shares his list of four aspects of student life at the Catholic high school.
“One, people are nice to each other here. We look at the person walking down the hall and say hello; we hold the door for them,” he explained. “Two, we’re academically strong. … Don’t be scared. You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe you belonged here (academically).”
Thirdly, he speaks on discipline, saying that parents discipline their children because they have a plan for them that leads to good things and the school does the same.
“It means that if you are tardy, perhaps a few minutes late to school, we’re going to teach you not to be late, or teach you, with a dress code, how to look professional. It’s not a punishment; it’s corrective,” Dorsel said.
Faculty and staff witness to the results of the discipline on appearance and behavior. “There’s a huge difference we see between freshmen and seniors.”
Lastly, is the Catholic identity of the school.
“We’re a spiritual community,” he said. “Everything we do should lead us to God. That is the undertone. We pray seven times during a school day.”
In addition to daily prayer, Mass and eucharistic adoration are available at various times each week. Students participate in service projects like the annual Hunger Walk and pro-life activities. Twenty students attended this year’s March for Life in Washington, D.C.
“The family has to want those things to want a Catholic education,” he said, adding that if, for example, a student athlete suffers academically he or she is pulled from the team to focus on studies.
“It’s not the right place for everyone. I tell people to check out all the other schools, too. You have to want to be here and trust that we’ll do the right thing. You have to trust the people we put in place.”
Those Dorsel speaks of are the faculty and staff currently at the school.
“I’ve worked at a couple of different schools. This is one of the most talented faculties I’ve seen. First and foremost, they are strong academically.”
Sixty percent of teachers have advanced degrees and the average number of teaching years is 15. Dorsel also explained his philosophy when hiring head coaches who must teach full-time according to state regulations.
“It’s challenging for a small school,” he admitted. “You may have a strong athletic team but not a strong teacher. … (but) when we hire a coach the emphasis, first and foremost, is the classroom. That’s what parents want.”
He pointed to commercials on ESPN reflecting the reality that very few collegiate athletes go pro and most go on to “make money off of their brains.”
“Our emphasis here is to teach. … God has blessed us with teachers who are competent on the field and competent in front of a class.”
As school chaplain, Father Adams spends time both on the sidelines and in OLM’s hallways, a change for the former pastor of St. Gabriel Church in Fayetteville, not far from the school.
“It’s something I always wanted to do but never had the opportunity. I thought I’d take advantage of it now,” said the priest, who is enjoying the respite from the administrative demands of leading a parish.
“I do get to do a lot of pastoral work,” he said.
He has “a love for teens” and sees his ability to relate to them as a gift from God.
The diversity of the students “makes this a wonderful place.”
“They’re thrown together with relatively few problems,” he further explained.
Peer pressure is an issue most youth encounter to some degree and it is something he helps students confront.
“We need to teach them good values and morals,” he said. “They can live happily if they practice and have good values.”
Relating to high school students requires honesty. “You can’t fake it with them. You have to be real, be genuine, show them you care for them.”
“You have to be willing to accept who they are and listen. … Some of them carry a lot of baggage some times.”
Father Adams doesn’t tell them how to solve their problems.
“I very rarely tell them what direction to take but present guidelines and say here are some options. We talk it out and come to some consensus,” he said.
He has the opportunity to build upon his previous missionary work with Amigos for Christ by organizing mission trips with students. He will lead his second mission trip with OLM students this year.
“For these kids it’s very eye-opening. They often don’t realize how good they have it.”
The visibility of having a priest on campus gives Father Adams a chance to put in a plug for religious vocations when appropriate. “I let kids know that it’s an option these days. We’re working on it. There’s a lot of potential.”
One’s faith life is important and Dorsel’s hope is that students will reflect and model what they see and experience.
“We can talk to them until we’re blue in the face, but we have to act right,” he said. “God should be directing you.”
From sports teams attending Mass together to daily prayer, opportunities are present. “We don’t force spirituality on them. It’s ingrained in everything we do; it’s always present.”
Whether witnessing 40 percent of students turn out for the annual student-led FLAME retreats or individual students opting to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament or attend Mass, Dorsel remains inspired. “They renew me spiritually.”
Part of the spiritual journey, is discerning one’s vocation and he can testify to the sometimes circuitous route of finding a profession that fits personally. He switched from a career in management consulting to teaching. “I truly believe we’re all led by God. God has his will and mission for us. Those who find it earlier are lucky. It took me a couple of years to realize my passion and direction.”
He uses his God-given abilities to do what he loves.
“This is my thing; it’s who I am and who can stand in the way of that? I’m in the right place at the right moment definitely.”
Dorsel, the YouTube step dancing phenomenon, is rising to the challenge of increasing the school’s enrollment by also challenging school families to do the same. OLM enrollment stands at 223, three more than the goal of 220 set “to hype up the families” at the beginning of last year. The realization of the goal necessitated his impressive half-time performance with the school’s step dancing team.
“Everyone was surprised it actually occurred,” he said, also expressing how impressed he was with the patience and dedication of those on the step team.
He remains clear on many things, including his drive to one day have “500 of the best students” on campus.
“It’s not just the job of the admissions office but of the community as a whole,” he said. “It’s by word of mouth from the (OLM) families, really, and not billboards or ads. Anybody can make their school look good at an open house. I can talk, the admissions director can talk, but it’s really about talking to families choosing to come here.”
Their story is one of abundance and vibrancy. “We have a liturgical choir—the Taize choir—and also a step team. That’s very different from most schools.”
The small school boasts 23 different sports teams, 16 clubs and an impressive fine arts program. Small class sizes, about 12 students in subject area classes, mean more personal interaction with teachers.
“This is the best time to be here,” he explained. “We offer almost everything a major high school offers. We also have some challenging programs.”
Over 90 percent of the school population participates in a club, sport or service opportunity, which translates into only about 16 kids who “just come and go to class.”
“The kids are invested in the school on multiple levels,” Dorsel said. “The challenge is that the athlete is also the lead in the school play.”
Parental involvement is also surging and becoming part of the school’s culture. “It’s important for kids to see their parents involved, for them to know that they are working the concession stand or helping at an open house. … They’re proud that they’re there, especially when another kid says their parent is so cool.”
The bottom line for Dorsel is how the school experience shapes each student for the future.
“My thing is—we love every kid. Whether they go on to be a brain surgeon, a pro athlete or a Hollywood star, the most important thing is that they leave here a good, ethical kid with a strong spiritual grounding. Then we can say we’re successful,” he said. “I trust that Mercy is leading kids … forming the whole child.”