by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — School may seem to be a long way off for Catholic school students enjoying their summer break, but not for the principals — and especially the new principals.
Eight new elementary school principals and one new high school principal are hard at work preparing to take the helm for the first time this coming school year.
They’re a mixed lot. Some of them are principals for the first time, while others have been assistant principals or principals at other Catholic schools, or even principals at public schools.
There’s a lot to do and learn, even for the veterans. Fortunately, they don’t have to do it alone. The archdiocesan school office has a new principal program to form, mentor and assist them.
“After they were hired, superintendent Vince Cascone and associate superintendents Lorenzo Rizzi and myself met with the new principals [on June 14] to welcome them, answer any questions they had and shared a plan of action on how we’ll mentor them through their first couple of years,” said associate superintendent Allison Carney.
Additionally, the new principals met on July 13 with Holy Family School of Faith personnel to learn about the School of Faith’s role in their schools and their program of faith formation.
These first two meetings are only two components of the New Principal Mentorship Program. Other components include regional principal meetings and monthly new principal cohort meetings to address specific issues, said Carney.
“We also assign mentor principals to the new principals,” said Carney. “Of course, they can reach out to anyone in their region. I’m also considered their official mentor as associate superintendent.
“We provide them a folder at that first meeting with a document that is ‘The First 60 Days [as a Principal],’ which includes questions like: ‘What do you do during your first 60 days?’; ‘What do you see as your Catholic identity?’; ‘Who are the key stakeholders?’; and ‘What is the culture of your school?’
“It also provides an opening for them to reflect on who they are as leaders, what they’re passionate about and what they want to share with their new community. We talk about habits they should develop at school, like daily prayer with the staff and how to visit with different classrooms throughout the year. It covers the different forms of communication . . . with their pastor, board and parents, and the different mechanisms already in place.”
One of the new principals is Ali Geitz at Sacred Heart School in Emporia. It’s where she began her career as a student teacher while she was in college. She’s spent her 21-year career as an educator both in public schools and at Sacred Heart. Her children went to school there, and she filled a number of roles over the years at Sacred Heart.
“Sacred Heart felt like coming home,” said Geitz. “I tell my children that we’ve lived in different houses, but Sacred Heart has been home for their entire lives.”
The mentorship program has been helpful, she said.
“There is a wealth of support emotionally and in terms of the curriculum, and in terms of faith and communication,” said Geitz. “I have a mentor principal and a regional group of veteran principals. Vince Cascone and Allison Carney have been to our school. The archdiocesan school office [support] is based on personal connection.”
Kevin Lunsford’s 35-year career in education includes being a principal at three different public elementary schools.
“I had been teaching at Benedictine College (Atchison),” said Lunsford.
There was just one problem.
“I really missed the kids,” he said. “I began my career in Catholic schools and I wanted to return to Catholic education and give back to the church. It’s always been my mission to lead a strong Catholic life. . . . Now, I can lead it in a Catholic school.”
Even though he has experience as an elementary school principal, he found the new mentorship program to be helpful as he prepares to become principal at St. Benedict School in Atchison.
“I will say Vince Cascone and the archdiocesan school office personnel have done a great job,” said Lunsford. “They had a new principals’ orientation that brought us all together, and we talked about the different things we all need to do. They went through the handbook with us and talked about the policies we need to implement.”
Kelli Minshall was practically born to fill the role of principal. She grew up watching the work of her father, the late Mike Alex, founding president of St. James Academy in Lenexa. In her 14-year educational career, she has taught at Nativity School in Leawood and was vice principal at Visitation School in Kansas City, Missouri.
“The archdiocese is amazing at answering any questions,” said Minshall, who will lead St. Ann School in Prairie Village. “I can text Allison Carney at any time and she will answer me and help me out. I feel super-supported.”
Like the other new principals, Minshall is trying to understand the culture of the school and the community. She’s working through her own assessment of what the school needs and is gathering input from different stakeholders. It’s a lot of learning and listening.
“We’re typically off in July but I’m here every day,” said Minshall. “It’s the calm before everything gets started. I can get a lot of [detail work] done with my vice principal before school starts — organizing, going through handbooks, hiring one more teacher, understanding our school’s strategic plan and goals for our accreditation, getting to know people and establishing my own administrative priorities as I go.”
The great challenge new principals face is learning to juggle all their different responsibilities, said Carney. The archdiocese gives them a lot of support and guidance, but it also allows them the flexibility to really administer their schools.
“I think the concept of subsidiarity that the Catholic Church operates under is absolutely wonderful,” said Carney. “It provides some autonomy in decision-making at the local level so our schools can do a little bit different things in terms of how they run.
“Our principals have a lot of control in their schools in our archdiocese and it’s really wonderful for them.”