WINDSOR TERRACE — Any principal will tell you it’s no easy feat to oversee daily operations, solve problems, and make sure their schools are running at tip-top shape.
The 69 principals across the Diocese of Brooklyn have been working extra hours over the past year, ensuring their students still receive a quality education during an ongoing pandemic. Though the school year looks and feels different, these leaders have emphasized the importance of community and collaboration.
St. Bernard Catholic Academy Principal Tracy Flanagan said her christening to principalship was like a “baptism by fire” because she assumed the role months before the pandemic hit. Despite the challenges she faced soon after, Flanigan recognized how her history with the school has been important to her.
“I’ve been at this school since 1998, and I worked under two amazing principals, who I looked up to as role models,” Flanagan said, noting that former St. Bernard principal Kathleen Buscemi was her most recent mentor.
“But, I also grew up in this neighborhood and with a lot of the parents here, which is a different kind of bond,” she added. “And no matter what — pandemic or no pandemic — everybody always sticks together and works together to make this school successful.”
It’s that tight-knit feeling that Flanagan wants to emulate for years to come. “I want St. Bernard’s to live on and be a staple of this community — a place where alumni can come back to, still visit, and be proud of,” she said.
Denise Gonzalez has been inspired by her previous principals — as well as experiences from other diocesan schools over the last two decades — while continuing to lead St. Bartholomew Catholic Academy in her fourth year. Having attended St. Michael’s growing up, according to Gonzalez, the grammar school was her “home away from home” due to its family-like atmosphere.
“I remember the eighth-grade prom was not a prom, but a family dinner,” she reminisced. “It celebrated the students’ accomplishments, and also the sacrifice parents made to send their child to a Catholic school.”
“We had a family Thanksgiving dinner every year, where we counted our blessings and gave thanks to God for all we had as a school,” Gonzalez added. “These things, to me, are very important [when] creating an environment where students learn, are safe, and feel that someone cares for them.”
Resurrection Ascension Catholic Academy Principal Joann Heppt remarked how compassion and understanding have always been key while serving as principal for the last 19 years. However, those particularly heightened this year.
“Prior to COVID-19, I had an open-door policy wherein if a parent had a question, they could stop in and see me,” Heppt explained, noting that she is still available by phone and email. “Parents have to have access to you, and they have to be able to ask a question — from the simple to sometimes more complex, big problems.”
That sense of connection is also part of the school’s mission through service projects. “If we teach them nothing else, we teach them that there are people in need outside of these four walls and that they need to respond to the needs of their community and world,” Heppt said, explaining that Resurrection Ascension helped those facing food insecurities this year during Catholic Schools Week.
Anne Stefano, principal at St. Francis of Assisi in Astoria, noted she has firsthand experience acclimating to a new place and forming new relationships.
“When you’re switching schools, you have to understand the community that you’re joining and respect what was here,” Stefano said, mentioning she’s been at St. Francis of Assisi for 11 years and was principal at two other schools beforehand. “You find ways to respect the traditions that were there, what people want to keep in, and how you want to move forward.”
With that in mind, Stefano believes continuing to grow is a part of the job description. “I think you have to be willing to be progressive, to take risks and move forward with a program or a direction that you think would be helpful for the students,” she said. “You have to be willing to listen to others’ ideas and think out of the box a little bit and go with it.”
Susan Walsh, who has been principal at St. Saviour Catholic Academy for five years, spoke about her commitment to the faculty and families, which sometimes extends into the weekends.
“I’ve walked up on a Saturday to get my paperwork done,” said Walsh, who lives within walking distance from the Park Slope school. “But, I think for me, it’s about being in those classrooms and being with the kids every day.”
“It’s also super important to be connected to the teachers and to know what they need in order for them to be successful,” Walsh added. “Because if the teachers are successful, then the kids are successful.”