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Laura Gwenis

By Cari Ann DeLamielleure-Scott | Photography by Tom Gennara | March 2021

Together, Office of Catholic Schools and Principals Serve Christ and Their Students

 

School leaders sometimes need to make tough calls, especially during a pandemic when a new virus threatens the safety of students and staff. Having the assistance of a dedicated administration can make those decisions easier.

Gwenis Laura is the principal of Holy Spirit Catholic School in Brighton, a position she took just weeks before COVID-19 shut down schools across the state in the spring of 2020. She’s no stranger to working with a governing body. A school administrator for 23 years, Gwenis worked as the executive director of a charter school authorized by Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school district in the country, and has held numerous administrative positions at other institutions.

Navigating the challenges and complexities of the pandemic in a new school may have been difficult for some, but Gwenis approaches the task with confidence thanks to three things: her experience, the faith-filled community of Holy Spirit Catholic School and the invaluable support of the Diocese of Lansing Office of Catholic Schools.

“Throughout the pandemic, diocesan leadership has advocated for us and given school leaders the flexibility to make site-based decisions, which sometimes needs to happen quickly. Because of this, we’re able to make decisions that are in the best interest of our students,” Gwenis says, referring to the Office of Catholic Schools. The department is funded by DSA dollars to support the operations of Catholic schools across the diocese.

Prior to returning to in-person instruction in the fall, changes were required to school staffing, as well as the school’s infrastructure, to adapt to a world where people must stay six feet apart and wear masks.

Through parish support and contributions, Holy Spirit hired additional custodial staff and installed air scrubbers and refillable water stations. Class sizes have remained small, and desks are spaced apart. The school installed lockers to minimize clutter in the classroom. Since it reopened in August, Holy Spirit has provided uninterrupted in-person instruction.

Gwenis has a long history working in school systems that created a great deal of “red tape,” and lacked quality support from their governing body. She appreciates the quality of leadership her school has received.

Another difference she notices is the level of personalization. It took Gwenis years to build relationships within her previous district, but now, she has direct access to diocesan education leaders.

“When I talk to them, I always walk away with a sense of direction or if a specific action needs to be taken,” she says. “Throughout the pandemic, they have remained focused on the core work of educating students in a faith-filled environment and have set the tone of how we should respond to external events, which gives me confidence as an administrator.”

Making decisions in an ever-changing situation also requires having the most up-to-date information. Gwenis and other Catholic principals receive guidance from the diocese on the different phases of the state’s return-to-school plan. The superintendent has assisted in interpreting what that means for their schools and students.

This level of availability, to Gwenis, is imperative and a benefit to a Catholic education.

“Diocesan leadership is visible in the school. I’ve never seen anything like it. They come out and help, which is important for the teachers and students to see. It makes them feel like they’re heard and listened to,” Gwenis says.

Holy Spirit’s faith-filled community has also been key to the successful return to school.

Because Catholic education is centered on Christ, staff members are proud to discuss their Catholic faith and their love for God with students. This type of spiritual mentorship is often unseen in non-religious schools.

“I can say, ‘Great job on your test. God blessed you today,’ or thank a student for helping during Mass. To me, that’s truly special,” Gwenis said.

Prior to the pandemic, the school community comprised predominantly practicing Catholic families. When public schools switched to virtual learning, however, Holy Spirit welcomed new families – some who are not Catholic and some who did not practice the faith regularly.

“We currently have a fourth- and fifth-grade student working with our director of faith formation to make their first holy Communion. The families have come back strong to the faith,” Gwenis says.

For another family, the Catholic school experience has been an awakening. They returned to church and are praying together. All the students learn their prayers and attend Mass regularly.

Because of these success stories, the school is focusing on retaining the new families and welcoming them to the Church. The school also shares with families that if they have financial need, they can apply for the diocese’s tuition program, which is supported through donor contributions.

To work at the school is a calling. If you ask Gwenis what drew her there, she’ll tell you “the Holy Spirit,” a response and feeling that resonates throughout the school halls and the church. The parish priest and parishioners still tell the story of witnessing one pure white dove riding the truss and being lifted into place by a crane during the building of the school. The dove stayed on-site for three full days.

“During this difficult time, it’s been a blessing for me to serve our students and the Lord at Holy Spirit,” she says.