New principal hopes to bring stability to Our Lady of Lourdes school

Wednesday, August 21, 2013 | 5:06 p.m. CDT

© 2013, reprinted with permission.

When school begins on Wednesday at Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School, students will meet a new principal – again.

Since 2007, the school has gone through four principals. That makes Elaine Hassemer, the new principal, the fifth one in six years.

Principal Elaine Hassemer tells sixth-grade teacher Jennifer Borisenko how much she likes the bright zebra print decorations in the classroom. Both Hassemer and Borisenko are new to the school.

But Hassemer won't be the only new leader – the school is also hiring an assistant principal. The former principal and assistant principal both left at the end of last school year to pursue other opportunities.

"The lack of routine and consistency has been hard," said Amy Kaiser, a counselor who has been at the school for 13 years. But the change has also brought people together.

"We're a really strong group of people," she said. "I think it's just bonded us." And the students have "been amazing through everything."

Kristy Murphy, who just started as the secretary in January, watched the changes of the past few years take place from a parent's perspective – her son attended the school from sixth through eighth grade. It was "a little disheartening" to see so much turnover in leadership, but it didn't seem to affect her son very much.

Now, there's a sense of excitement at the school.

"It's a whole new world here," Murphy said.

Since Hassemer started her job as principal on July 1, she's met one-on-one with the faculty to get to know them and their needs. "They're just really looking for someone to stay," she said.

She doesn't know exactly how many years she'll be there, but she wants to stay "long enough to make an impact."

Changes in Catholic education

While Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School has seen changes in its leadership the past few years, the face of Catholic education as a whole has been undergoing its own transformational shift for the past several decades.

Simply put, "There aren't as many nuns." Reflecting back several years, that's the biggest change Monsignor Michael Flanagan has seen. He's the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, the parish that shares its grounds with the school.

Forty years ago, he said, most Catholic school teachers were nuns. Patrick Darcy, a long-time principal of Columbia Catholic School (the school was renamed to Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School last year), described them as "the backbone of the Catholic school system in this country."

But now, Flanagan said, "It's a rare school that has a nun."

In part, Flanagan said that's because of the vocation shortage facing the church – not many people are becoming priests, nuns or sisters.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, back in 1975, there were almost 59,000 priests in the U.S. By 2012, that number dropped to about 39,000. The drop in religious sisters has been even more drastic. In 1975, there were more than 135,000. In 2012, there were only 54,000.

The overall shift in church culture since Vatican II, in the 1960s, has also had a role in the education change.

After Vatican II, more lay people were drawn into the school system. "It doesn't depend on the few," Flanagan said.

More lay involvement meant smaller class sizes – sisters didn't have to oversee 50 students in one classroom anymore, Flanagan said. Darcy said that in addition to the vocation shortage, religious sisters were called to different ministries, and with Vatican II’s call for the greater involvement of the laity in the life of the church, many have responded by teaching in Catholic schools.

But the increase in lay leadership has brought financial challenges. With the sisters, "It was cheap," Flanagan said. They could be paid $50 a month, "and that was enough to take care of them."

While inexpensive, Darcy said the pay was disproportionate to "their significant contribution to education."

Today, lay people’s salaries’ are higher because most teachers support a family.  Even so, Catholic school teachers don't make what public school teachers do. Darcy recalled the salaries from his days as principal. The Catholic school's salaries for 2007–08 were based on public school salaries from 2006–07. Whatever the number, the Catholic school teachers made about 85 to 90 percent of it.

Another hiring challenge comes in finding effective teachers who are also well-equipped doctrinally. "Catholic school teachers have great faith, but some are not as knowledgeable in articulating specific teachings,” Darcy said.

These signs hanging above classroom doors at Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School remind people that Christ is at the heart of what they do. Originally, there were enough signs for all the classrooms, and they were blessed before being hung up. Over the years, some have gone missing, but most classrooms still have them.

Even with the challenges, both Darcy and Flanagan said there is a strong draw to religious schools, largely because the children and parents involved with the school share common values. Parents also want an environment where children can learn more about their beliefs, which complements what is taught at home.

From public to parochial

Hassemer, a parishioner at the St. Thomas More Newman Center, is excited to share her beliefs in a school setting. In public school, values can come into the conversation, but "You walk a very fine line," she said. Now, she's in a school where faith is at the forefront.

Elaine Hassemer prepares for the new academic year at Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School. Hassemer started at the school in July and is the fifth new principal in six years.

Growing up, Hassemer was Methodist; she converted to Catholicism when she got married. As a child, she didn't attend private school, but this change in her professional life has been a long time coming. The timing was just never right, until this year, when she retired from the public school system.

Hassemer spent a good portion of her career at Fairview Elementary School. She taught sixth grade there for nine years, then became the assistant principal. After nine years in that role, she spent four years as principal.

She then became the first principal of Mary Paxton Keeley Elementary School – a position she held for 11 years, until this July, when she switched from public to parochial education.

Darcy, not only a former principal, but a longtime friend of Hassemer's, knows how much she's been looking forward to the job at the Catholic school.

"She told me years ago, 'Don't retire until I'm ready to retire, until I can take your job,'" Darcy said.

After 22 years as principal, Darcy retired in 2007 – that's when the quick turnover began.

Turning over – and over again

After Darcy, the principal was Kevin Kiley; he stayed for one year. The next two principals, Linda Gartner, then Patricia Kirk, each stayed for two years. Erin Whalen, the most recent principal, stayed for one. She went on to teach at St. Peter Catholic School in Fulton.

Kathy Coulson, the former assistant principal, left this spring to become principal at St. Brendan School in Mexico, Mo. She worked at the Columbia school for two years and said people left "for a variety of reasons."

But the faculty remained pretty consistent, which she said brought some stability.

As an outsider who was once on the inside, Darcy reflected on reasons for change. Sometimes, he said, it's a matter of fit: "Sometimes, people either get into a particular position, or sometimes they are appointed and come to realize their talents could be served in a different way."

And in some cases, he said, it's good to know when to leave: "Sometimes, people don't see when it's not working out – sometimes, we hang on too long."

Looking ahead

Hassemer said the school is almost done with the hiring process for the new assistant principal. While she looks forward to what the new year will bring, others are looking forward to what she will bring.

"She's been taking the bull by the horns and running with a lot of things," Murphy said.

Flanagan thinks her experience will help, along with her nature: "She's grandmotherly, so to speak, so I think people will respect her."


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