NIAGARA FALLS -- Niagara Catholic High School's seniors have done well this year, and many feel a key to their success is the school's small size.
Last weekend, 52 students graduated from the school. That compares with an estimated 2,346 students who will graduate next weekend from Niagara County's 10 public high schools.
Niagara Catholic served 197 students this year. Tuition cost $4,995.
School statistics appear to lend some credence to the senior' "smaller is better" concept:
*All 52 seniors graduated with Regents diplomas.
*Twenty-five received Regents diplomas with honors, or better, which means the students scored 90 or above on five to eight Regents exams.
*The Class of 2007 received more than $2 million in college scholarships.
"This school's so small you can't help but learn. You can't fall through the cracks because there are no cracks to fall through," said class Salutatorian Michael M. Slish.
Slish, 18, has won a free four-year ride to Canisius College. He said Niagara Catholic not only prepares students to be successful in college but also in life.
It's a view shared by many of his classmates.
"I believe I found the optimum conditions here to do well," said Poalo N. Grenga, Student Council president.
Grenga said a Niagara Catholic student has more opportunities to take on leadership roles and responsibilities, and gets more individual attention academically because of the small enrollment, especially when compared with a place like Niagara Falls High School, with 2,300 students.
"The best thing is that the small things you do here turn out to have a large impact on everyone," Grenga said, "because we just have 200 kids. In a public school, the small things you do are going to be small because the population is so astronomical."
The Niagara Catholic student body is like a family, he said.
"Everybody knows each other. The closeness is there. The companionship is there. The eagerness to succeed is there -- all the attributes you would want in your own family to help push you to do the best that you can do. Everybody supports you, teachers and students. There's competition, but its not cut-throat. It serves more to inspire you to do your best and try to go above and beyond that."
Grenga also said Niagara Catholic helps students develop on a personal level, which prepares them for the future.
"I believe if I was in a bigger school, chances are I would not have had the courage to stand up and try running for Student Council president and things like that," he said. "I don't think I'd have been able to do that anywhere else. This school is more geared to help people start showing their true colors earlier than if they had to fight through the masses of a big public school."
>Religion a big part
Religion also is a bigger part of school life at Niagara Catholic.
Slish said debate and discussion are part and parcel of the Niagara Catholic experience, and religion class is often a discussion class. Ideas are analyzed, problems explored and issues debated.
The art of listening and respecting other people's logical opinions -- whether you agree with them or not -- is a school trademark, he said.
Niagara Catholic teaches its students to treat everyone with dignity and respect, Slish said.
"That is one of the biggest lessons I'm going to take away from here," he said. "You should treat people the way you want to be treated. If you're harsh on everyone else, then everyone's going to be harsh on you, and life is just not going to be fun."
Because of that, Slish said he believes he and his classmates have been given the tools to go out into a diverse world and work, and get along with other people. That, and advance academically and into a solid career.
The openness teachers and staff use in the classroom extends to personal relationships, Slish added. The staff, he said, is always willing to listen to students' problems and help them deal with them, an example that helps students have empathy for other people.
Lauren E. Imbriano, 17, is another senior heading to Canisius and this year's senior class president. She said class size also brings student success.
"I think the biggest class I ever had here had 21 kids in it," Imbriano said.
The smaller class size enables students to develop closer relationships with classmates and teachers, she said.
"When you need help, they are there to help you because they want to help you," she said, "and that gives you the incentive to pay attention in class and do well with your work . . . .
"We all get together and do homework. If someone doesn't understand something, the ones that do help explain things."
Class Valedictorian Angelica B. DeRosa, 17, said her school also "teaches you about your faith and prepares you" to defend it.
"When you go out into the real world, not everybody is Catholic," DeRosa said. "There are people who are going to be bashing your faith and putting you down for believing in God in general or believing in Jesus Christ. So you need to be strong in your faith and be able to answer their questions."
She said it seems like a lot of people who criticize the Catholic Church misunderstand it.
In one situation, DeRosa said, a person asked her, "Why do you guys worship Mary?" and stated, "You don't even read the Bible."
Her response was simple: "We don't worship Mary. . . . We read out of the Bible at every Mass."
DeRosa attended Niagara Middle School. She said she liked Niagara Middle and wanted to go to Niagara Falls High School.
"My parents made me come here . . . ," she said of Niagara Catholic. "For the first two years I wasn't so happy about it, but for the last two years I've been very glad I came here. And I'll tell you, even though you don't want to be here, there will be people here that make it worthwhile for you.
"Educationally, it was definitely worthwhile. You can learn if you want to, and you don't have to learn if you really don't want to. But not learning is a lot harder than learning because people are going to try to teach you, no matter what. They make sure you learn. I mean, if you're not learning a teacher will say all right I'm having a review class at such and such a time and you need to be here, and they make sure you get your grades up."
She said students just get swallowed up and become involved in academics and extracurricular activities, even if they never intended to.
"Somewhere in the mix, someone will say something like, 'I see you're into music. We're having a meeting. . . . Why don't you come down and get involved." One reason it's easier to get involved is because "the opportunities keep coming at you," DeRosa said. "Our school is so small, they need you to do things. So if you don't get your turn, it's pretty much your fault because the chances come around much more than once."
She said she thinks that public schools are good but that Niagara Catholic has its advantages because everyone, staff and students, knows each other so well people won't let you deal with a problem alone.
"In the public schools," DeRosa said, "if you want help, you can get it. But it's a lot harder. You have to really go after it. You have to ask. Here you don't. If you need help, it comes after you.
"At Niagara Catholic, if you stray off the path even slightly they pull you back on quick. They make a gargantuan effort to make sure each student does well."
Niagara Catholic isn't for every student. The numbers tell that story. The graduating class last weekend was only 20 percent of the size of classes that graduated from Catholic high schools in Niagara Falls a generation ago.
But you can't argue with the success its graduates have had in the classroom, or their potential.
All but one member of the Niagara Catholic High School Class of 2007 will soon be off to college.