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I Wanted to Be Part of the Solution

by Audrey Scott

Jodi McLawhornWrapping up a particularly difficult job interview, the sitting principal walked Jodi McLawhorn to the front doors. Anxious to leave and being just steps away from her exit, Jodi said to herself, “Okay, thank them for their time, but this place is a mess. I’m out of here.” 

Turning to leave, “I literally felt something tug me,” Jodi recalls.

Realizing nobody else was there, she paused. There was one more question she wanted the answer to. “You’ve spent the last hour telling me all about what doesn’t work at this school. I’m wondering what does work? Why is this school still open?”

The principal said, “Oh, that’s easy. The teachers… The people. They love this school. The community loves this school.”

And in that moment Jodi thought… “I could do that.”

It’s that “can do” spirit that led her to become the principal at St. Albert the Great in Burbank, Illinois, and that continues five years later to guide Jodi McLawhorn (Chicago Fellows Cohort 4), as the director of Leadership Formation for the Office of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago. With almost 30 years dedicated to Catholic education, she credits her time in the ACE Principal Academy Chicago Fellowship (formerly the Center for Transformational Leadership), for completely changing the way she leads.

“As an administrator, as a principal, my challenges, my issues, my day-to-day experiences were my own, but then to be on campus at Notre Dame where they're speaking my language and they're addressing the exact things that I am feeling every single day. Every time we talked about our faith, or every time we talked about growing our schools academically, spiritually. I had never, ever experienced that type of professional development in my life that was so connected to what I was actually experiencing day in and day out. It was so spot on and targeted exactly to the issues and challenges in Catholic education, and I had never experienced anything like that.”

“I used to lead from a fear-based mentality: Afraid of what might happen if I don't do this thing the right way. But when I became a part of the Chicago Fellows my view of leadership changed to leading based upon:


leaning into your faith, 

doing things like 

loving kids radically

loving parents radically

putting that love out there in such a radical way that it's transformative.” 

Jodi noticed it changed the way she sent email communications and the way she talked to people. It provided her with a different lens to view leadership not from a place of fear, but rather from a place centered in love.

“I wanted to be part of the solution. My school grew as a direct result of me being a part of the ACE Principal Academy program,” said Jodi.

Jodi has taken the ACE Principal Academy mission to "strengthen, sustain, and transform principals to impact their schools and communities" to heart. Jodi's personal leadership transformation — to a proactive approach and an asset-based mindset —  not only transformed her school, but continues to transform her wider community at a systems level as the Director of Leadership Formation for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

ACE Principal Academy Fellows in a line with their right sleeves rolled up flexing their arms to the cameraIn this new role, Jodi’s long-held desire to be part of the solution for Catholic schools hasn't changed. “What I love about the position that I've taken — and the reason why I took this position — was because the programs target Catholic school principals. I work with 150 Catholic school principals every single day.” 

Upon seeing an opportunity to create a structure where all principals could be supported, formed, and sustained in the same way that she felt in the Chicago Fellowship, Jodi went straight to work when she arrived at the archdiocese in 2022. She asked herself, “How can we grow leadership formation programming? How can we make this more meaningful and impactful for our principals?” She thought about her experience within the ACE Principal Academy, and remembered distinctly the work around defining each schools’ root beliefs. 

Jodi went to her superintendent and pitched the idea to him.

“We need root beliefs. We don't have them and we need them.” Jodi said, “This is going to define all of our work. This will anchor everything that we do, every decision we make, every program we launch, everything we do is going to be aligned to these root beliefs.” 

He was sold and the first one they came up with was the easiest to define: “Great principals create great schools.”

“If that is what we believe, then everything we do needs to align to that. If we believe that great principals create great schools, then what could we do to have great principals? And that thought would not have been there if it wasn't for that seed that was planted through my experience at Notre Dame,” said Jodi.

“This is just another way for me to have an impact on the principalship. It wasn't because I didn't want to be a principal. It wasn't because the principalship was hard — although it was really the hardest job I've ever had — but that wasn't the reason. The reason I took this job was because I knew in this position I could have a greater impact on Catholic education.”

Jodi McLawhorn giving a presentation on stage“I will shout it from the mountaintops, if we could re-energize people with this idea of spreading our love, spreading our joy, making that an intentional part of Catholic education… We're always going to have challenges, but it's how we address them, believing we will find a way together.”

Supporting, forming, and retaining great principals, in turn helps make great schools and all that trickles down to the children. This belief is what drives Jodi to take on this challenging work of Catholic school leadership.

“I believe that kids can be anything they want to be. Kids can be successful if they've got God to lean on. I've always felt that way but I was never able to articulate it. My experience at Notre Dame was really helpful for me with that.” 

Reflecting back on that “tug” that changed her principalship trajectory and asked now what she thought that tug was? 

“I don't know. It had to have been divine intervention. Honestly, it had to have been my angel wings. When you've got God in your corner, anything is possible. That's why I'm so committed to all of this. [The ACE Principal Academy] changed my life. I know it can change the lives of others, too.”

Interested in learning more about the ACE Principal Academy?

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