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Alumna guides school’s path

If Suzanne Klingler Johnston had not been such a tall girl she may never have become the educator she is today.

Standing 5 feet 9 inches by the eighth grade, she was the tallest student in her St. Thomas Catholic School class in west Irondequoit. She often was selected to run the room on days a teacher was late.

“If they lined us up by height, I was certainly at the end of the line,” Johnston recalls, noting the early experience as a temporary teacher inspired her to want the position full time.

Today, Johnston stands not only at the front of the class but also at the head of the entire school as the president of Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women. She has held the post for 12 years.

Under her leadership, Mercy has added a sixth-grade program, expanded the campus with $15 million in capital projects and increased enrollment by 25 percent.

The private, all-girls Catholic school in Brighton was founded in 1928 and lays claim to notable alumnae, including Broadway, television and film actress Mimi Kennedy, state Seventh Judicial District Supreme Court Judge Anne Marie Taddeo and U.S. women’s soccer star Abby Wambach.

Johnston oversees a team of 120 at Mercy, including faculty, staff, coaches and tutors, and manages a budget of nearly $5.7 million. The school’s per-pupil cost is $12,000, compared with the Monroe County average of $21,000 per student.

Johnston developed her educational background through work in public schools in Monroe County, serving in academic positions in the Rochester City School District and the West Irondequoit school district.

She began her administrative career in 1980 as a school of science and technology administrator at Wilson Magnet High School in the city. Johnston says she was responsible for designing and implementing a science and technology program for students in the district’s second least-successful secondary school.

“My first year at Wilson, students begged me not to post the honor roll list as it was not socially acceptable,” Johnston recalls. “Thanks to an exceptional faculty committed to student success, academic achievement eventually became a source of immense pride among students, and Wilson was rated as one of the top high schools in the nation by Newsweek and visited by President George Bush” in 1989.

Johnston became principal of Wilson in 1985, a post she held for 17 years, during which time she initiated the intense International Baccalaureate study program. Wilson became the fourth school in the state authorized by the international organization to offer it.

“It ended up being cool to be smart at Wilson. We had to change the culture,” Johnston says. “It didn’t happen overnight. We did things like academic pep rallies and gave out varsity letters for students on the honor roll. Once we turned that corner, Wilson became the place where students who did well wanted to attend.”

Johnston retired from Wilson in 2002 and took an adjunct teaching position she continues to hold today at St. John Fisher College. She teaches a weekend course in the Graduate School of Education attended by students who are studying to be school principals.

“It’s a good way to keep current and stay close to the latest developments,” Johnston says. “I have interns all year long, too.”

Retirement did not last long. In 2004, the Sisters of Mercy contacted Johnston about leading the school.

“Suzanne is an excellent role model for our students,” says Sister Barbara Moore, a former teacher at Mercy and newly elected chairwoman.

Moore’s respect grew even greater for Johnston after Moore became head of the board, she says. “Suzanne came to me and said, ‘Always tell me the truth, Barbara.’ ”

The board respects Johnston for her leadership and her ability to make all feel included, Moore says.

“We have many faiths here: Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist and Protestant. Suzanne makes sure they all feel included,” Moore says. “She also established a cabinet of older students to give input.”

As president, Johnston has full authority at Mercy. She has approval on faculty appointments and is involved with all major decisions affecting the school, Moore says.

Sports a key
Relating academics to sports helped reach the students at Wilson, Johnston says. Athletics are important at Mercy, too, where 70 percent of the students play at least one sport, which is a main reason why the school invested $2 million in a new track and field in 2012. Other sports include soccer, basketball, sailing, crew, tennis and bowling.

“It’s good for young people to be involved in their school, through athletics, performing or student government. The more involved they are, the better they do in the classroom,” Johnston says.

The school is equally committed to the arts. In 2015 it completed a $6.4 million performing arts center.

As a private school, Mercy is not bound by the same state-mandated educational guidelines as public schools. Mercy receives no state funding and can set its own curriculum.

Mercy strives to improve its academic program, Johnston says, and, prompted by its 2010-15 strategic plan, decided to move away from the Regents model used by the public school system.

“It was a difficult decision because we believed the Regents was the gold standard. But we began to see it was no longer rigorous enough for preparation of study at the university level,” Johnston says. “Then the Common Core complicated things. What gave us pause was what could we replace it with? What assessment do we put in place?”

The board of trustees agreed with Johnston, and her team replaced the regents program with a curriculum based on David Conley’s research and his book, “College Knowledge,” and Mike Schmoker’s research and his book, “Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning Results.”

The school was Regents-free by September 2013. The new curriculum included measurable outcomes, Johnston points out, including the requirement every girl must complete a college level course before graduation and every senior must complete a research-based Capstone project that is service-oriented and related to the critical concerns of the Sisters of Mercy.

“We reviewed each of 144 courses, mapped them and then infused in every course college readiness, critical thinking, critical analysis, writing and problem-solving skills,” Johnston says. “Those skills are what emanated from Conley’s work and prompted Common Core. The trouble is when Conley’s work was translated into Common Core, it was not a faithful dissertation of his work.”

Mercy boasts a graduation rate that has been consistently 100 percent for the past decade, with 100 percent continuing on to college, Johnston says.

Still, the school is looking to improve, she says, and the mission of the 2016-2019 strategic plan beginning next fall is to develop an academic program to create a world-class learner. In addition to education standards, students are to learn the importance of nonviolence, addressing racism and ways to be of service.

Last year’s graduating class of 132 received $24.5 million in merit scholarships, which averages to $170,000 per student.

Biggest challenge
Tuition at Mercy costs $7,375 for sixth grade, $9,425 for seventh and eighth grade and $9,850 for ninth through 12th grade. Johnston notes one in four Mercy students receives some level of financial assistance, with the school distributing $1.4 million each year to qualified students.

“The biggest challenge I face is navigating two conflicting forces that are fundamental to Mercy’s sustainability. As a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy we are committed to providing the advantage of a Mercy education to all that desire it, regardless of financial resources,” Johnston says. “At the same time, we are a business and our greatest source of revenue is tuition.

“The struggle is to balance the need to keep Mercy affordable while providing and supporting the best possible learning experience for young women.”

There is generous support from Mercy alumnae, past parents and charitable organizations.

Often, Johnston seeks support for students on an individual basis. One way she does that is by helping girls referred to her by a former RCSD colleague, Chojy Schroeder.

Schroeder was a teacher at Franklin High School when Johnston was the principal at Wilson. The two met through their work for the city schools and became friends as well as colleagues.

“She cares a lot about public education and was trying to bring the standards up,” Schroeder says. “I like how she welcomes different opinions too.”

Schroeder is retired and now works with refugees in their transition to Rochester. She assists the brightest girls with extra potential to find a way to attend Mercy, a school they could not afford without assistance.

“These are children of all ethnic and social backgrounds,” Schroeder says. “This year Suzanne helped us with a girl from Somalia who had lived in a refugee camp for years. It really is amazing for me to be able to call and say I really need help. I know Suzanne will find a way.”

Johnston has arranged funding for 15 refugee girls, Schroeder says.

One of them is Barsha Biswa, a girl who emigrated here seven years ago from Nepal. Her aunt was in Rochester, and Biswa came with the rest of her family to join her. Biswa attended the School Without Walls, where Schroeder was then teaching.

Through an introduction from Schroeder, Johnston connected Biswa to the funding she needed to attend Mercy from ninth grade through her senior year. She graduated with honors and earned a scholarship to Nazareth College where she is pursuing a bachelor of science degree in medical sciences.

“I hope to be a physical therapist,” Biswa says.

She recalls the warmth she felt the day she first met Johnston.

“It was the day I went to take the entrance exam for Mercy,” Biswa says. “She was so kind. I felt so welcome and it made me feel so relaxed.”

Biswa toured the school with Johnston and says she felt the leader had fostered a culture of inclusion that made her feel connected to other students almost immediately.

“I was afraid at first that I would be an outsider because I was foreign,” Biswa says. “But the girls were so friendly. It was such a good environment.”

Biswa was encouraged by Johnston to correspond with her benefactors. She wrote letters to apprise them of her progress, and she was happy for the opportunity to show her gratitude.

“I met them at the Mercy Gala and we had our picture together. They were as proud of me as my family,” Biswa says.

Johnston also takes pride in seeing the success of Biswa and other girls like her. Finding the donor matches for the girls is one of the greatest joys of her work.

“I’ve seen it happen over and over,” Johnston says. “People who support these students really do change the course of a life.”

Johnston researches the interests and aptitudes of the students Schroeder brings to her and then searches for potential donors with similar backgrounds.

That is how a young woman from Vietnam found her way to Mercy.

“This young woman loves science,” Johnston says. “I had a Mercy grad who wanted to invest in her alma mater. She was a nurse and her deceased husband a renowned scientist. I knew I had to introduce them.”

There are currently 44 students being sponsored by individual donors. Not all sponsors are private individuals. There are corporate donors as well, such as the Wegman Family Foundation, which sponsored 42 girls through a scholarship fund established in 2005.

M&T Bank sponsored Barsha Biswa and others.

“They truly take an interest,” Johnston says. “Whenever we have committee meetings they always begin by asking for their letter from the student being sponsored. They truly care how she is doing.”

Enrollment growth
Mercy has continued to see enrollment growth. There are just over 800 students at the school, which is up 140 from eight years ago.

“We’re delighted with our numbers, especially considering the decline of the school age population in Monroe County and that the cost of private education is a commitment,” Johnston says.

She noted there is a waiting list for the ninth grade.

Enrollment was on a gradual increase until it hit a sharp spike three years ago when Mercy added a sixth-grade program.

“It was a strategic move,” Johnston says. “Ninety-two percent of public schools in Monroe County end elementary at grade five, so it’s easier to take girls in transition. Also, we have found that he earlier young women come to us, the easier it is for them to meet the rigors of our nine through twelve program.”

Johnston is a Mercy graduate. She grew up in west Irondequoit, the second eldest of four daughters of Joseph and Helen Klingler. Her father was a buyer and then a manager for the Sibley’s Department Store in Irondequoit and her mother became a real estate agent once Johnston’s youngest sister was in high school.

“My parents gave me some life lessons for which I am grateful. First, they taught all of their daughters that you are responsible for your own happiness, and the other—do what you love,” Johnston says.

She is doing just that.

Johnston loves to travel, especially if it sets her on an adventure. She tries to make two trips a year. Last year she went on an eight-day cycling trip along the coast of Spain and this past summer she hiked the west coast of Ireland.

At 73, her passion is still walking the halls of Mercy, where she can see the potential of the young women who are grateful for the opportunity their education affords them.

“As a Mercy graduate, steeped in the tradition and values of Mercy, I believe providing a quality education for all young people, regardless of their circumstances, is the greatest civil rights issue of our time.”

Johnston looks forward to continuing her work in connecting girls to their future at Mercy.

“I have always found the experience of seeing young people find their strengths, their voice and their purpose, exhilarating.”

Suzanne Klingler Johnston
Position: President, Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women
Age: 73
Education: B.A. in English, Nazareth College, 1966; M.S. in education administration, SUNY College at Brockport, 1975
Family:  Husband, James Johnston (deceased)
Residence: Pittsford
Activities:  Traveling, cycling
Quote: “As a Mercy graduate, steeped in the tradition and values of Mercy, I believe providing a quality education for all young people, regardless of their circumstances, is the greatest civil rights issue of our time.”

10/14/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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