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 | By Stephanie Van Koevering

Principals Unite: Building Community and Support in Catholic Education

What began as a peer support network for new principals has become a mainstay for participating members, thanks to support and leadership from the Diocese of Lansing’s office of Catholic schools. FAITH editor Stephanie Van Koevering recently attended one of their quarterly meetings and learned how the group is making a difference for students — and each other.

In a gathering room at the Diocese of Lansing, filled with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the clinking of utensils, a group of educational leaders convenes. But these are not just any leaders; they are the newer principals of Catholic schools across the diocese.

Their mission? To connect, share and support each other in the challenging yet rewarding journey of school administration.

Led by diocesan associate superintendent Mandy Wildern, the meeting’s ambiance is warm, and conversations flow freely. From federal funding allocations to serving students with special needs, these gatherings delve into the intricacies of education. However, beyond the formal agenda, this forum serves as a safe space for principals to share their triumphs and challenges openly.

Helene McNeilly, principal at St. Mary Charlotte, places tremendous value on her time with the group. 

"It's difficult to be principals spread out in 10 counties because often you feel like just a little lone soldier," McNeilly reflects. “There are things you can’t talk about with people in your building, things you’re carrying that folks just don’t generally understand. It comes with the job.

“It's nice having a group and support to help answer my questions. How do I navigate that? How have people handled it in the past? What are some resources that I don't already know about? It helps a lot and that way you don't feel so alone, knowing that there are people you can reach out to.”

Kimberly Pavlock, principal at Holy Spirit Catholic School in Brighton, agrees. "It really helps us connect on a different level ... we feel comfortable talking with each other because we're kind of all in the same boat."

Being a principal is a challenging job, one that brings a great deal of pride, hard work, and responsibility. There are plenty of things to keep a new principal up at night.

“There’s something new every day,” says Michelle Sontag, principal of St. Andrew, Saline. “Two days ago, I would have said the toughest part of the job was calling a snow day. I was up all night just watching the weather, watching what other districts were doing, referring to the survey I just sent to the parents. So two nights ago it was that that kept me up. But it's always different.”

Group members agree that although the job can be lonely at times, there’s one thing that keeps them going: their passion.

“The very most important thing is to shepherd children," Sara Wade of St. Gerard Lansing chimes in, highlighting the profound sense of duty that drives these leaders.

As the discussion unfolds, the principals share insights into their unique contexts. Sontag reflects on the exhilarating yet daunting task of spearheading a brand-new school. "All I can say is this is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," she admits, acknowledging the complexities of establishing protocols and meeting community expectations.

Conversely, Karen West-Aiello of Holy Rosary in Flint reflects on the nuances of leading a long-standing institution. "We're trying to figure out what really needs to fit and what can be left aside," she shares, navigating the delicate balance between tradition and innovation.

Amidst the diverse challenges they face, one thing remains constant—the unwavering support they find in each other. "I think there are six of us. That's the best thing," West-Aiello reflects, echoing the sentiment of camaraderie and solidarity that permeates their gatherings.

As the meeting draws to a close, gratitude fills the room. The principals express appreciation for the support they receive from the broader community of Catholic parents and believers, expressed through support for the DSA, which provides funding for the Office of Catholic Schools.

In a world where educational leadership can often feel isolating, these principals exemplify the power of prayer, collaboration and community. Together, they stand as beacons of hope, guiding their schools with unwavering dedication and unwavering resolve. As they depart, renewed and inspired, one thing is clear — the journey of education is not solitary but shared, and in unity—and in Christ— they find strength.